GAO Finds No Tie to Rat, Fires : Probe: Homeowners claimed law to protect the habitat of a rare rodent contributed to the wildfire that destroyed their homes. Agency says regulations did not worsen the conditions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federally mandated measures to protect a rare rodent in Southern California did not contribute to the destruction of 29 homes in an October blaze near Riverside, the General Accounting Office told lawmakers Thursday.

The finding casts significant doubt on claims by some Riverside homeowners that rules barring a method of brush clearance called "disking" made their homes more vulnerable to fire by allowing flammable material to build up around the houses. The prohibition on disking was intended to protect the habitat of the Stephen's kangaroo rat, which is considered in danger of extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Homeowners' claims, repeated in Washington by critics of the Endangered Species Act, had become a potent political charge against the landmark environmental statute, which has expired and is expected to be reauthorized next year.

But the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, told lawmakers Thursday that "on the basis of the experience and views of fire officials and other experts . . . the loss of homes during the California fire was not related to the prohibition of disking in areas inhabited by the Stephen's kangaroo rat."

Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), one of the lawmakers who asked for the inquiry, said that it should "quiet those who, in the aftermath of the fire, seized upon the personal tragedies of these California homeowners to advance their own agenda to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act."

But Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) disagreed with the report's finding, saying that he rejects "the conclusion that the prohibition of disking does not appear related to the loss of homes. It completely defies logic to say that reducing the amount of combustible material around a structure does nothing to protect it."

"The kangaroo rat was not responsible for the fire destruction," he said. "It was man's overzealous regulations and interference with the rights of homeowners that was responsible for the damage."

The October, 1993, fire that sparked the exchange was one of 21 wildfires that raked California late in 1993. Fanned by tornado-like winds and fueled by acres of bone-dry tinder, it consumed about 25,000 acres and destroyed 29 homes, including 18 mobile homes.

GAO investigators, who interviewed county fire officials, local leaders and affected homeowners, said that winds, dry conditions and difficult terrain for firefighters appeared to seal the fate of the 29 homes. Certain homes were lost primarily because they were made with fire-prone materials and their owners kept trash and firewood nearby. In addition, a lack of steady power to pump water cost many people their homes.

The GAO found that the area surrounding some homes that were consumed by the fire had been disked to remove weeds and brush. But most of the homes burned showed no signs of weed abatement, the investigators said, even though the county regulations that prohibited disking allowed the clearance of weeds and brush by mowing and by hand.

In December, 1993, county officials agreed that homeowners should use the disking method, which effectively clears heavy weeds and brush but can gouge the soil beneath, within 100 yards of their homes. County fire officials, the Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency and officials of the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service are trying to negotiate an agreement that would provide for fire abatement measures, such as the clearance of dry brush, that would minimize adverse consequences to the kangaroo rat and its habitat.

The Stephen's kangaroo rat, which lives in grasslands and sparse coastal sage scrub of western Riverside County and northern San Diego County, was listed as an endangered species in 1988. It is part of a unique family of rodents more loosely related to squirrels than to mice or rats.

Disking in the rat's habitat has been prohibited since 1989. While the policy was reviewed several times by local fire departments and questioned by homeowners, it remained in effect.

The chief of Riverside County's Fire Department told investigators that "there were concerns within the Fire Department" about the ban on disking, but added that it raised no formal objections because it believed that allowing disking could open the county to litigation under the Endangered Species Act and that mowing would do as well in getting rid of flammable weeds.

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