USA — The San Bernardino National Forest will getabout $35 million to thin overgrown mountain areas, remove dead and dying treesand repair damage from October’s wildfires, federal lawmakers announced Thursday.
The money is part of $500 million included in an appropriations bill signedby President Bush in November.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, announcedSouthern California’s share, bringing welcome news to mountain residents workingto reduce the risk of another major wildfire.
A century spent rapidly suppressing wildfires has left California’s forestsand wild lands overgrown and ready to burn. Years of drought and a bark-beetleinfestation also left millions of trees dead or dying.
In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service and San Bernardino County have spentmillions to remove more than 1 million trees, conduct prescribed burns and clearthick brush from thousands of acres. But officials have long stressed largeamounts of work remain.
Feinstein and Lewis, along with Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., helped secure theextra funding in the wake of October’s blazes, which destroyed 2,000 homes –including more than 400 in the San Bernardino Mountains — and scorched 500,000acres across Southern California.
“It is a major infusion of badly needed money for Southern California,and it will go where it is needed most: Toward making our National Forests,state and private lands more fire safe,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Federal funding to help reduce the wildfire risk in the local mountains hasoften come in large, one-time chunks after a devastating blaze.
After the 2003 fires, the federal government sent more than $100 million tothree Southern California counties to remove dead and dying trees. SanBernardino County received $70 million.
Lewis said the money the Forest Service spends thinning forests and removingdead trees and thick brush increases the safety for those living in high-riskareas.
“As we have seen with the major forest fires last year and in 2003, thecost of fighting these fires and recovering from their devastation is muchhigher than the dollars being spent now to prevent them,” Lewis said in astatement on Thursday.
Lewis said the work done over the past two years proved effective in slowingthe Grass Valley Fire, near Lake Arrowhead.
“I am confident that the programs funded here will see similar positiveresults in the future,” Lewis said.
In addition to $31 million to reduce hazardous fuels, the San BernardinoNational Forest will receive nearly $4 million to repair damage caused byOctober’s Slide and Grass Valley fires.
The spending plan also includes $18 million for Southern California countiesand $8 million for California fire safe councils, community organizations thatraise fire awareness and conduct work on private land. The money will go towardfuels reduction.
Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said there is no breakdown yet for how much thecounties will receive.
But Feinstein and Lewis expect the money to go where the risk is greatest: inheavily populated areas abutting wild lands, such as near the San BernardinoNational Forest, Specht said by e-mail Thursday.
Gerry Newcombe, president of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council,said the Forest Service must continue to reduce trees and brush, which can fuelsevere wildfires, in the areas surrounding all mountain communities, includingdead and dying trees.
But the Forest Service also should work to remove so-called ladder fuels,low-lying brush, small-diameter trees and low limbs, Newcombe said. That tacticalready proved successful near a Lake Arrowhead community, he said.
“It saved Deer Lodge Park,” he said.
San Bernardino National Forest officials could not be reached Thursday.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who represents themountain communities hit hard by October’s fires, praised the efforts byFeinstein and Lewis to secure the money.
If the region could receive $30 million a year, a major dent could be made inreducing the risk, Hansberger said, noting that such finding would not be neededindefinitely.
“Every time we get a significant contribution, it keeps us working andkeeps our crews working,” Hansberger said.