Tinder-Dry Trees a Standing Problem

Times Staff Writer

Three weeks after flames claimed close to 300 homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, residents are waking up to a familiar reality: The pine trees killed by drought and bark beetles remain, and bucolic communities are as much a tinder box as they were before the fires.

In fact, forestry and fire officials believe that the Old fire, which broke out in late October, may have increased the danger to the heavily populated Lake Arrowhead area.

"Because of the fact that we saved the majority of the homes in that community, that means the area of highest mortality is still there," said Ruth Wenstrom, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest. "If anything, it made it worse, because it killed additional brush."

Although the vast majority of dead timber is on public land, the trees that pose the most immediate threats stand on private property.

Homeowners, many of them on small lots with modest homes, face fees as high as $1,000 a tree to have cranes pluck dead pines from their yards.

The danger to these rural homeowners has been largely overlooked in national-forest policy debates taking place in Washington that center on thinning remote public woodlands through timber contracts.

Dale Bosworth, head of the U.S. Forest Service, had little comfort to offer during a visit to the region last week.

His agency lacks the money to thin out a forest where there is little commercial interest in timber, he said.

Instead, the Forest Service has concentrated efforts on trees that could block evacuation routes or damage communication centers, leaving broad swaths of public forest untouched.

"We still have hundreds of thousands, if not a million, dead trees that need to be removed," on both public and private land, said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty.

Among the 49,000 private lots under its jurisdiction from Wrightwood to Big Bear, 6,000 have received warning notices, but his agency has struggled to get homeowners to comply.

"It's not a matter of resistance," Brierty said. "It's hard to get a citizen to write a $5,000 check.... We move on to those who can get it done."

Cedar Glen, a Lake Arrowhead-area community where more than 200 homes were wiped out by fire, is a case in point.

"It's mostly blue-collar workers in that area," Brierty said. "This was a very difficult place to get compliance. It's difficult terrain, a low-income area with not a lot of expendable income."

Any tree-removal effort comes too late for much of Cedar Glen, which was left a scorched moonscape by the fire. The near miss for the greater Arrowhead area, however, appears to have motivated more residents to fell diseased and dead trees on their property.

Right outside the office of the county's tree-removal assistance program behind the Lake Arrowhead fire station, reddish-brown branches droop from massive pines. Two inspectors walked the streets nearby and were hard-pressed to find property without a dead tree, until they came upon a parcel with a dozen fresh stumps from pines already felled.

Only a couple of weeks ago, longtime Twin Peaks resident Betsy Cowan found that a pine an arm's length from her balcony had died.

"I can look around and see on the other vacant lots, lots of dead ones," she said. "If they were cutting trees constantly, it would take five years."

A fellow Twin Peaks resident, Eileen Blakely, said: "Everyone I know has had trees taken down, including me. I had 11 taken down in the spring, and then there were four more. But I couldn't bring myself to take them down, because they weren't dead. Now they're dead too."

Behind Blakely's home, in a working-class enclave west of Lake Arrowhead, a brown pine soared 50 feet above her roof line. It will cost $900 to take it down, she said.

She has already spent $4,000 to fell trees on a quarter-acre plot she bought for $75,000 about 15 years ago.

"And that was just to drop the trees," Blakely said. "I had to deal with the mess."

A single mother, Blakely commutes daily to Rialto for work. She said she can't afford to live in the San Bernardino area.

"People have gotten second mortgages to take down trees," said Randy Schneider, who moved to Blue Jay -- a community along the western shore of Lake Arrowhead -- from Sherman Oaks three years ago, settling in what had been a family weekend home for more than two decades.

"We're lucky; we've taken down only two," he said.

In the spring, Schneider took it upon himself to negotiate a contract to take 11 other trees from neighboring vacant lots, after consulting absentee owners, who paid for the work. That brought the cost per tree down to $500, he said.

But more trees are dying around the Schneider home. "Everyone realizes we're in no better shape than we were before," said his wife, Christi.

Bosworth, the Forest Service director, said that ultimately there should be a way to find commercial use for at least some of the wood.

"There's some big trees up in that country," he said. "It's unfortunate that someone is paying $1,000 a tree to get rid of it rather than receiving $1,000 for a tree. There ought to be value in some of that material, and it ought to be able to be utilized instead of being hauled out to a landfill.... I'm not looking to go back to the days of big timber, big sawmills all around, and all that kind of thing, but there can be a lot of smaller ways to utilize this that would reduce the cost."

San Bernardino County officials are trying to attract pallet manufacturers for the damaged pine, which is not considered prime lumber because it is often stained with a fungus associated with bark-beetle infestations.

Government efforts are not likely to show quick results for homeowners frightened by October's wildfires, officials say.

"The fact is, it's going to take $20 million a year for five years to do what we need to do," said John Hatcher, a forestry consultant working for San Bernardino County's hazardous-tree removal program in Lake Arrowhead.

Some programs exist to help get trees removed. Families with low incomes can qualify for grants of as much as $5,000.

But the money is limited, and San Bernardino County would have enough money for only about 120 properties, according to Sunny Booze-Lyndes, coordinator for the hazardous-tree program.

Booze-Lyndes is focusing efforts on grouping properties for massive cuttings, reducing the price per tree. One such program on more than 50 properties was a resounding success last spring, she said.

The alternative -- taking a hard line and forcing property owners to remove trees -- will not work, county officials say.

When officials tried pushing property owners into taking down their trees, "we wound up sending out 4,000 notices at once, and we were inundated with people saying they couldn't get anyone to come out" and cut trees, said Booze-Lyndes. "It wasn't working out the way we thought it would."

Fire inspectors are reserving tougher enforcement for property near evacuation routes or where flames could spread rapidly and endanger other property.

"We're basically working on the worst of the worst," Booze-Lyndes said. "It's always the absentee property owners who won't take the trees down. If there's someone who's living out here, who's not taking trees down, it's because they don't have the money."

The county can start a lengthy court process and eventually cut the trees and bill the property owner, but until recently, there hasn't been enough money to front that expense, Booze-Lyndes said.

"I would like to say we're going to be more aggressive, but I can't tell you how busy we are in this office," she said. "I don't think we can be more aggressive. Even if you gave me every penny I needed, I still couldn't get enough tree cutters."

Many residents are waiting for help from Southern California Edison, which the state Public Utility Commission ordered in April to remove any trees that could fall on its power lines. That amounts to about 350,000 -- about a third of the dead trees in the area, according to utility estimates.

Edison will be able to pass its cost, projected to be $20 million by year's end, to ratepayers, said David Barreira, the utility's coordinator of the tree-felling program.

Booze-Lyndes' department, meanwhile, plugs away on what remains of a $3.6-million budget, awaiting its slice of the $30 million recently obtained by the local congressional delegation for the Forest Service and local governments.

The money will help, Booze-Lyndes said, but in the meantime, the strongest incentive remains the memory of the fire.

"Every one of us has a vested interest in taking these trees down," she said. "We're not up here strong-arming people."

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