Ski resorts near the blazes gear up to open

Southern California's ski and snowboard resorts escaped fire damage, but near Big Bear Lake, mandatory evacuations, road closures and power outages hindered preparations for the approaching snow season.

In fact, when wintry weather arrived late last week, resort operators at Snow Valley, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain had no personnel to fire up their snow-making equipment until Sunday.

"Despite not having electricity from Edison, our [backup] power generation plant has allowed us to begin snow-making," Kevin Somes, spokesman for Snow Valley in Running Springs, said Sunday. Snow Valley, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain have each received several inches of natural snow, but because of fire-related access issues, only Bear Mountain has announced a probable opening day of Friday.

At Mountain High in the San Gabriel Mountains, the snow guns started blowing early Friday. The facility's West Resort opened Monday.

Beyond Southern California, Boreal at Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe opened Saturday. Other Lake Tahoe-area resorts, most of them blanketed by more than 2 feet of snow, are scheduled to open before Thanksgiving. Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra opens Thursday.

— Pete Thomas

Flares and forests are a bad mix

The chief suspect in the Cedar fire in San Diego County is a lost hunter who allegedly launched a signal flare in hopes of being rescued. Firing a flare when lost in the woods is a bad move, experts say.

More than 276,000 acres burned, 14 people died and more than 2,200 homes were destroyed in the Cedar fire. Steve Edinger, the California Department of Fish and Game's acting assistant chief for enforcement from Santa Barbara to San Diego, said, "Obviously, a signal flare is created for water. It's not something built for a forest, especially a dry one."

He noted that to get a license, hunters must take a safety class; it stresses the STOP program, which stands for "sit down, think, observe and plan." But the planning should start before you're on the trail. There are common-sense steps you can take to avoid getting lost, Edinger added. They include bringing a good map, using the buddy system, scouting the area and planning to be back to camp or car an hour before sunset. And, he said, "you have to be prepared to spend the night if you're lost or injured."

Survival expert Ron Hood, whose Idaho-based company makes outdoor videos, believes the best survival tool these days is the cellphone. He also recommended the GMRS/FRS radio service, the modern-day version of the citizens band radio. He cited a range of two miles and more for the devices in good weather conditions.

"Choice three," he noted, "is a flashlight at night."

On an even more low-tech note, Edinger and Hood suggested that anyone going into the forest should at the very least have a whistle to sound the international distress signal — three blasts in a row. Hood cautioned against screaming unless there is no other choice.

"If people hear you screaming, they say, 'Oh no, I'm not going over there.' "

— J. Michael Kennedy

Hunters tagged out of the forests

So what happens to all those people who paid for hunting tags in national forests that were closed because of the recent fires? The answer, at the moment, is that they are out of luck.

The California Department of Fish and Game has announced that there will be no refunds for the tags, but that may not be the end of it.

Refunds were given out last year for forests where there were closures. So to see if there is a change in plans, hunters should check in periodically with Fish and Game's license and revenue branch at (916) 227-2245.

— Pete Thomas

Fish, too, are affected by flames

The loss of insects and riparian habitat surrounding the region's lakes and streams could affect fish populations for the next two to four years, fisheries biologists said Monday.

Where the fires consumed vegetation anchoring banks, soil erosion will occur, clouding the water and potentially suffocating fish.

Ash and soil that settle on gravel beds where fish lay eggs may also temporarily disrupt the reproductive cycle.

"In places like El Capitan [Reservoir], which is way down this year [because of drought], the terrestrial growth that would have provided good habitat for young-of-the-year fish — a lot of that has been burned away," said Terry Foreman, a Ramona-based biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Foreman noted that major fish die-offs are unlikely and that recovery of fisheries to pre-fire status would occur within a few years.

Two to four years is the typical recovery period for fisheries, agreed Jack Williams, a fisheries biologist who teaches at Southern Oregon University, "even if those stream systems are extremely hit by fire."

He added that fires have, although rarely, been known to kill fish in shallow streambeds.

State biologists have yet to thoroughly inspect fisheries closest to the burn areas.

It may take a week or more before access to lakes and streams returns to normal.

— Pete Thomas

Bear killed after attack near Bridgeport

Campers were stunned two weeks ago when a black bear with two cubs in tow lunged at a man standing near a cabin outside the Mono County town of Bridgeport. The bear mauled the victim's face, then passed within inches of three witnesses sitting beside a fire pit. The man survived, but the bear's days were numbered.

The next day, it returned to the site and was shot by state and federal wildlife officials. A necropsy revealed human-prepared food in its stomach. It was the state's second bear attack this year.

Doug Updike of the state Department of Fish and Game said the most recent attack should serve as a reminder that bears are extremely dangerous and that with 30,000 of them in the state, encounters are likely to occur.

— J. Michael Kennedy

Tipping Point for ATVs?

The number of deaths and injuries from all-terrain vehicle accidents — many of them involving children — has climbed to new highs.

A new report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said that during 2002 there were 113,900 ATV-involved injuries that required emergency room treatment — a record.

The same was true for deaths, with at least 634 in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available. In 2000, 569 people were killed in ATV accidents, and in 2001 110,100 were injured.

"The continuous growth of ATV injuries and fatalities demonstrates how pervasive this public health crisis is and why it is time for a new approach to ATV safety," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America. The new data follow an August report critical of the ATV industry's voluntary approach to safety.

According to the most recent figures, 37,100 children younger than 16 required emergency room treatment last year because of ATV accidents.

— J. Michael Kennedy

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