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Ire After the Fire : Victims Say Endangered Rat Got More Protection Than Their Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of Riverside County residents who claim they needlessly lost their homes in the recent fires are teaming up with local developers to campaign for changes in federal laws designed to protect endangered animals and plants.

About half a dozen burned-out families in the Winchester area of south Riverside County say their homes might have been saved if government officials had given them permission to clear the brush and build firebreaks around their property earlier this year.

But officials from the county, state and federal government discouraged homeowners from creating firebreaks because they could have displaced the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, a tiny rodent put on the federal endangered species list in 1988.

The Winchester fire, which roared through the mostly rural area in late October, charred 25,100 acres and destroyed 29 homes--some of which may have been saved if homeowners had cleared their land.

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“My home was destroyed by a bunch of bureaucrats in suits and so-called environmentalists who say animals are more important than people,” said angry rancher Yshmael Garcia, who lost his 3,000-square-foot house in the fire.

“I’m now homeless, and it all began with a little rat.”

But environmentalists worry that the emotional stories of people like Garcia may encourage lawmakers to pass hasty, ill-conceived changes to the Endangered Species Act without considering the long-term consequences.

“These fires weren’t started by the kangaroo rat, and it shouldn’t be made a scapegoat for something that happened naturally,” said Anne Dennis, an official with the nearby San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club. “To use this as an excuse to scrap the whole Endangered Species Act would be ludicrous.”

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The furry kangaroo rat has been the bane of many homeowners and developers in the Inland Empire for years.

The Endangered Species Act either bans or strictly limits development on most of the 77,000 acres that have been deemed “rat study” areas in Riverside County.

Builders complain that dozens of new housing projects have either been scuttled or delayed by the rodent, while some homeowners gripe that they can’t even remodel their homes or build firebreaks without running afoul of the federal law.

Efforts to ease restrictions on the rat’s habitat and open up it up for more development have so far been unsuccessful. But now some of the fire victims, as well as other local homeowners, plan to work more closely with Southland home builders and Riverside farmers to either “de-list” the rat or repeal or amend the Endangered Species Act.

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“What happened a couple of weeks ago is tragic, but the stories of the fire victims might finally help us put a human face on the cost of all this foolishness,” said Michael Rowe, a Riverside real estate agent who has so far been thwarted in his attempts to replace the one-bedroom house on his 20-acre parcel with a larger home.

Ironically, Rowe says his home was spared by last month’s fire because he hastily built a break by completely clearing, or “discing,” a swath of land as the blazes approached. The flames didn’t jump the break and the house was saved, he said.

But Garcia and some of Rowe’s other neighbors say they lost their homes because they obeyed the rules discouraging discing, which can kill or displace the kangaroo rat. By clearing the land to save his own house, Rowe may have violated the Endangered Species Act and could be jailed or fined.

No charges have yet been filed against Rowe, and he doesn’t think he will be imprisoned. “How would it look if I got sent to Folsom or Sing Sing just because I saved my house?” he asked.

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Officials at the Riverside County Fire Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they had been encouraging homeowners in the fire area to mow their grass and remove the trimmings with a grass catcher.

But Rowe, Garcia and some of their neighbors say that mowing dozens of acres would be too expensive and impractical, in part because a blade that strikes a rock can spark a fire by itself.

“Besides, grass burns whether it’s four inches tall or four feet tall,” Garcia said. “The only way to protect against fire is to build a firebreak, and we weren’t allowed to do that.”

Riverside County Deputy Fire Chief Bob Martinez agreed that discing is the best way to protect property against fires, but his department had encouraged property owners to simply mow their land to appease Fish and Wildlife officials.

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In addition, Martinez said there is no guarantee that discing would have saved any of the homes given the intensity of the firestorm.

John Bradley, a biologist for Fish and Wildlife’s Carlsbad office, said no one at his agency ever explicitly told Rowe or any other homeowner in the area that discing would break federal law.

But in a letter concerning’s Rowe’s request to build a firebreak several months ago, the supervisor of the Carlsbad office, Brooks Harper, told Rowe that the proposed break posed “potential endangered species conflicts” and that harming the rat or its habitat would make him “liable for both state and federal prosecution.”

Rowe’s ongoing battles with government officials have made him an unofficial spokesman for some of the homeowners fed up with the government’s restrictions on their property.

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The group’s efforts to amend or repeal the act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress next year, are being joined by two powerful local trade groups, the Riverside Building Industry Assn. and the Riverside Farm Bureau.

“I think the public is starting to realize that the kangaroo rat is not an issue that affects only big developers,” said Jon Friedman, president of the builders group, who claimed to have had two housing projects torpedoed by concerns over the rodent.

“Hopefully, something good will come out of these fires,” said Dennis Hollingsworth, the Farm Bureau’s environmental manager, who complained that some farmers have been prevented from working their land because it could displace the rat.

“It was bad enough that some people had to lose their homes,” Hollingsworth said. “It would be even worse if Congress ignores their loss and leaves the act intact.”

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Indeed, the political heat caused by last month’s fires is being felt in Washington.

“We have to change the (environmental) laws so they show more concern about human life and property rights,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), who added that he may ask fire victims to testify before Congress in his efforts to amend the Endangered Species Act.

At the very least, Deputy Fire Chief Martinez hopes that last month’s blazes will lead to some type of compromise that will balance the Fire Department’s primary responsibility to protect the public with the government’s goal of protecting endangered species.


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