Dead Pines Pose Risk of Another ‘Mega-Fire’

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As bark beetles and drought devastate trees, debate grows over how to deal with the threat.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2004.


Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Half of all the pine trees between Idyllwild and Lake Arrowhead are expected to be dead or dying from drought and bark beetle infestation by the fall, according to forest officials who have concluded that the risk of a massive fire is far greater than previously believed.Forest experts said the grim findings required a more aggressive campaign to thin forests and construct fuel breaks in and around Southern California’s mountain resort communities, home to 80,000 people.


“As the problem grows, so does the potential for another mega-fire,” said Gene Zimmerman, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest. “The situation is so bad that, as hard as we work, we keep falling behind. Every time we make a plan, the problem outstrips us.”

Forest Service ranger Rocco Terracciano said the pines were so infested with the devastating beetle that, “We’ll start cutting down dead trees, and by the time we get to the end of a five-mile stretch a month later, we have to go back to the beginning because we have so many new dead trees there.”

The bark beetle has always been endemic in the Southern California mountains. But years of fire suppression, coupled with increasingly dense growth and consecutive warm winters, have triggered a beetle explosion.

Last fall, a wildfire destroyed thousands of acres of brush and hundreds of homes in the Cedar Glen area of Lake Arrowhead. That fire, however, burned only 7% of the dead trees in the San Bernardino mountains.

Today, communities such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake are surrounded by 99,000 acres of beetle-ravaged trees — ready fuel for a forest fire.

Federal and state officials and academics in the field vary in their projections of how many trees have died and are dying. But all agree that by fall, at least 50% of the trees will have been ravaged by the beetle.

The most recent aerial surveys of the San Bernardino National Forest, conducted in September before Southern California’s catastrophic fires, determined that 12.5 million, or 36%, of the region’s 35 million trees were dead or dying.

Since then, however, computer mappers at a Redlands firm hired by local fire protection groups and agencies say the infestation has continued to spread rapidly.

“I would say the mortality rate in the San Bernardino National Forest is up around 40% now,” said Taylor Sims, a firm project manager. “This year’s fire season will be even more hazardous than last year’s because there will be a lot more dead trees.”

The best methods for reducing that threat are the focus of debates between federal forest managers who are spending heavily on fuel breaks, and forest ecologists who are pleading for forest-thinning operations.

The U.S. Forest Service’s current plans call for constructing “shaded fuel breaks” — meaning some trees would remain — around the mountain resorts of Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild and Big Bear Lake.

Desperate to head off a catastrophe, the agency has launched a series of controversial strategies, from dousing healthy campground trees with insecticide to prescribed burns, such as one that got out of control at Big Bear Lake a month ago.

Forest Service officials argue that the breaks are designed to slow fires and provide lines of defense.

Richard Minnich, chairman of the department of earth sciences at UC Riverside, however, insisted that the firebreaks proposed by the Forest Service were worthless. “We have to reduce the regional fuel loads,” he said.

Reese Halter, president of Global Forest Science, a nonprofit international forest research institute, agreed and has called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to help mountain communities by taking down dead trees before the dry, Santa Ana winds return.

“The Forest Service has been wasting a lot of time and money on firebreaks,” he said. “They would be useless against the scale of fires we’re worried about: huge machines that create their own lightning storms and spit fireballs a mile in front of them.”

On Thursday, Tom Bonnicksen, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University and visiting professor at UC Davis, who favors a diverse forest of far fewer trees, took a helicopter over Big Bear Lake to examine the infestation and determine strategic locations for potential fires.

“I saw a level of tree mortality greater than I anticipated, and a dying forest with homes and businesses inside it,” he said. “I was encouraged, however, to see some areas where trees were nicely spaced, indicating there’s a real chance of effective forest restoration.”

Some residents in the mountain areas are wary of more government intervention and have lost faith in the Forest Service’s ability to protect their communities. That distrust was underlined a day after the prescribed burn, when about 30 Big Bear Lake residents picketed Forest Service headquarters and disrupted a town hall meeting with jeers.

President Bush’s $760-million Healthy Forest Restoration Act calls for “community-based” fire protection strategies developed cooperatively by federal forest managers and local residents. That won’t be easy in Big Bear Lake, where a popular bumper sticker reads: “Please help Smokey. Take matches away from forest rangers.”

“The federal government has mismanaged this forest for so long, people are starting to rebel,” said Big Bear Lake chain-saw shop operator George Flores. “The prescribed burn that got out of hand is a good example of why we’re so jittery. Yet, the feds say, ‘Trust us.'”

Compounding tensions between the Forest Service and the community, Big Bear Lake City Manager Michael Perry recently unveiled a “Healthy Urban Forest Initiative” with a goal, as he put it, “of protecting the community from a forest fire, and protecting the forest from a community fire.”

Perry’s plan, which proposes a vast network of firebreaks on public land that he said would cost tens of millions of dollars and several years to construct, was hatched without help from the Forest Service, which manages that land.

Separately, some residents are demanding that all future federal fire protection plans be reviewed by “independent experts.”

In the meantime, Big Bear Lake, which had remained relatively unscathed by the beetles, is showing signs of distress.

Nestled in a long valley 6,800 feet above sea level and just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, the community has cherished its preponderance of Jeffrey pine, which has shown a greater resistance to a species of bark beetle that has hammered Lake Arrowhead.

Healthy pine trees deal with the beetles by drowning the invaders in sap. But in the drought-stricken mountains, hungry beetles land on stressed trees and emit an odor that attracts new swarms. The beetles bore into the bark and feast on the moist inner core, where trees store and transport nutrients from roots to needles. The beetles carve egg galleries, where larvae hatch, mature and emerge to infect other trees.

“The Big Bear Lake forest is green, but it’s not healthy. It’s far too dense,” said Minnich, of UC Riverside. “There’s twice as many trees as there should be. So nature is going to get rid of the surplus the hard way.”