San Diego Union Tribune

May 5, 2004

Fire officials have continued concerns
Recommendations in place, but not needed decisions

By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON While the state and federal governments have taken steps to prevent the kinds of wildfires that roared last year through Southern California, fire officials worry that the wildfire season has arrived with no resolution to some of their most pressing problems.

There is, they say, continuing confusion over the use of military planes for firefighting; too little money for better communications equipment; some 500,000 acres of bug-infested, fire-prone trees that need immediate removal; and still no statehouse committee to put in place a blue-ribbon panel's suggestions for protecting Californians from wildfires.

"Unfortunately, the blue-ribbon report . . . is all recommendations," said Jeff Bowman, the city of San Diego's fire chief who helped write the report. "The only specific action step was that this legislative committee be established to implement the recommendations, but my concern is that it's" not yet up and running.

A House subcommittee today will examine what the federal government is doing to prevent wildfires in the West. Some of those testifying before the House Government Reform subcommittee will warn that state and federal lawmakers must move more quickly if they hope to prevent fires like those last year that burned 739,000 acres, destroyed 3,631 homes and caused 24 deaths 17 in San Diego County.

"There are reports as far back as 1966 when there were significant wildfires in California that talk about the same issues we're talking about today," said Bill McCammon, the California Fire Chiefs Association president who plans to testify today. "But the political will hasn't been there" to make significant changes.

Last month, a state blue-ribbon commission investigating the fires called for resolving conflicts between fire protection and environmental policies; solving jurisdictional disputes about fire policy; making it easier to use military aircraft to fight fires; and creating better radio communication between firefighting agencies.

But these and other recommendations are moving ahead slowly or not at all even as a flurry of wildfires have hit San Diego and Riverside counties in recent days.

Robert Gerber, the blue-ribbon panel's executive secretary, said some concerns are being addressed. He said military and fire officials are ironing out differences about when military aircraft can be used. Last year, military firefighting planes were not used right away because some officials believed federal laws prohibited their dispatch until all civilian planes had been used.

Gerber said there is now extra equipment in fire-prone areas with beetle-infested trees. And while he acknowledged that costs have prevented some local agencies from buying state-of-the-art communications equipment, he said cities and counties are making do with less costly "black boxes," which can connect multiple radio frequencies.

Matt Mathes, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in California, said the federal government will spend $95 million this year to remove fire-prone brush and trees on 19,433 acres in four Southern California forests. "We are trying our best to get every single dollar to the ground down here," Mathes said.

That puts a small dent in the problem: The forest service predicts there are 2.7 million acres that need clearing in Southern California 500,000 of those in the beetle-infested San Bernardino National Forest. At $1,000 to $2,500 per acre, the entire job could run into the billions of dollars.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act that President Bush signed in December would provide $760 million a year for brush-and tree-clearing. But in his proposed budget, Bush would spend only $58 million this coming year.

"I am deeply concerned that the money appropriated by Congress last year to confront the fire threat is not making its way to the communities that need funding most," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.