The waves of flame raging from Ventura to San Diego counties have been fed primarily by a bad-luck combination of high winds and an abundance of natural fuels. Yet, according to various state and local officials, the magnitude of California’s deadliest wildfire season in half a century may have been made worse by a lethal intersection of bugs and politics.
Months before the blazes erupted, an alarmed U.S. Forest Service ranked the fire danger posed by bark-beetle-infested pines as the most hazardous in the nation. The beetles had destroyed more than a million drought-weakened trees in the mountain communities of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, turning more than 500,000 acres of normally healthy forestland into a bug-blighted landscape of tree-size matchsticks.
More than a year ago, representatives from the various state agencies, seeing a disaster in the making, began begging Congress for a minimum of $120 million to help the state with the expensive task of removing the dead trees.
“Live forests during a prolonged drought are risky enough,” says Bill Ward, design staff manager for California’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “But an entire forest of standing dead trees — we knew that was a real nightmare scenario. For this reason, many of us were doing everything we could to somehow get the necessary money to clean out those trees. Unfortunately, we weren’t successful. And we’re paying for it now.”
Ward is quick to clarify that much of the fire-afflicted area has been fueled by drought-killed chaparral and high winds, not bug-eaten pine trees. “But the dead forests are a big factor in terms of the magnitude of what we’re seeing,” he says. “That’s why a lot of us feel really helpless — because we all saw it coming.”
Finally, in late September, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis from Redlands managed to shake loose $30 million for the tree cleanup. Yet the cash was too little and too late. (Currently, $20 million of the congressional allotment is still trapped in a bureaucratic pipeline.) “We’ve been working with Lewis’ office on this since September of 2002,” says Feinstein spokesperson Howard Gantman. “But unfortunately it often takes a disaster to get the government motivated. We’re hoping for more money in 2004.”
This is not good news, say many state fire and forestry officials, because as bad as things have been, they have the potential to get a lot worse before the 2003 fire season is over. “Here’s the deal,” explains U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Matt Mathis. “So far the winds have been blowing from east to west. But if the wind direction changes and starts blowing eastward onshore from the ocean, as it’s been predicted it will, it will blow the fires right into the middle of the bug-infested areas. Then we’ve got real trouble.” The trouble will grow exponentially, he says, if new fires start in the bug-killed regions.
Many of those who work closely with the communities most affected, like California Association of Resource Conservation Districts president Nadine Scott, say they are outraged by the funding delays. “We kept warning everyone that we had an unusually dangerous situation here in Southern California that, if not addressed, would result in some catastrophic wildfires. Frankly, I’m just devastated. We know the dead trees are only a part of it, but in San Diego and in San Bernardino County, they’re a big part of it.”
U.S. Forest Service entomologist Laura Merrill agrees. “Some of the worst beetle mortality is around Lake Arrowhead and on the north-facing slope of the Rim of the World,” she says, her voice bleary from a night without sleep.
“I talked to a chief who’s been in firefighting for 30 years who says this is the worst he’s ever experienced,” says California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Karen Terrill. The dead trees, she adds, are an element of what has made some of the fires so unstoppable. “We’re seeing history made,” she says. “And not in a good way.”
Some of those involved see the situation as particularly ironic in light of the Bush administration’s ongoing contention that environmentalist opposition to timber cutting is responsible for some of the Western states’ worst wildfires. “That’s why we thought our problems could have at least been considered for funding under Bush’s Healthy Forests initiative,” says Ward. “I mean, we’re not talking about live growth in unpopulated areas that needs to be thinned, we’re talking about a massive dead forest that’s putting thousands of lives and homes at risk. You’d think that would have gotten somebody’s attention.”
“But it didn’t,” says David Gottlieb, South Coast chair of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. “And for that reason it’s hard not to feel that some people in Washington were playing politics with California’s health and well-being.”
POSTSCRIPT: As this story was being written, a House-Senate conference committee with authority over Department of Interior spending voted to fork over another $10 million to California for the tree removal. “The president has recognized the catastrophe we are facing in California,” said Congressman Lewis, “and this additional funding is a commitment by Congress to reduce the potential for future disasters.” It should also be noted that the estimated cost of the fires is in the billions.