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Sups urge state to decrease fire danger

8/20/08
Josh Sebold
Staff Writer
Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor
California needs to do something now about the threat of catastrophic wildfire. That was the message from county supervisors and from participants at a wildfire summit in Sacramento last week.

Plumas supervisors approved a resolution at their Aug. 12 meeting "declaring a countywide fire emergency and calling upon the governor to take an active role with the federal government and agencies to immediately reduce threats of catastrophic wildfire on federally owned public lands and watersheds throughout Plumas County and California threatening the health and safety of our citizens and vitality of the environment."

The resolution noted the U.S. Forest Service owns 75 percent of the land in Plumas County. It also pointed out Plumas County has had 58 fires and over 37,750 acres burned this fire season.

The document noted "a majority was located on federally owned land."

It totaled the two-year fire number at 140,000 acres "which destroyed lives, property, businesses and the environment."

It argued two of the three largest wildfires in California in the past 100 years began on federally owned land. It continued, "75,000 acres of dead and decaying trees remain in the national forests within Plumas County due to ongoing appeals and litigation, and lax forestry management practices on federal lands."

The resolution also listed secondary environmental effects of fires as "diminished air and water quality, impacted watershed, increased air pollutant emissions, and threatened habitats of sensitive wildlife species."

The board estimated "approximately 80 percent of the state's developed surface water supply originates on watershed lands within our rural counties."

Finally, the document argued that inadequate forest management was adding to global warming with "4,900,000 metric tons of carbon emissions" released during the Moonlight fire in 2007, equating that to an added "731,343 passenger vehicles to the road per year."

The day after the supervisors' action the California Legislature's Rural Caucus hosted a daylong wildfire summit at the state capital.

The hearing featured emotional presentations from victims of the fires, calls to action by local, state and federal legislators as well as a strong showing of residents and others familiar with Plumas County.

The major push of the hearing was to propose some solutions to the wildfire dangers and to try to link up with other Californians not directly impacted by the fires.

Upstate congressmen John Doolittle, Wally Herger and Dan Lundren each talked about the need for more forest management from the federal side.

Assembly members Doug La Malfa and Rick Keene, along with state senators Sam Aanestad and Dave Cox, spoke of speeding up efforts to fire-safe private forestlands.

Assembly member Jean Fuller chaired the hearing, although Chester resident and former county supervisor Bill Dennison was asked to help moderate the panels.

The first panel featured Frank Stewart, forester for the Quincy Library Group counties and a board member of the Statewide Fire Safe Council, who addressed the scale of the thinning needed in the forest.

Forest Service scientist Dr. Joann Fites, who grew up in Plumas County, spoke about how she had measured the usefulness of the thinned areas in fighting the Wheeler fire at Antelope Lake last summer.

Fites also related how she'd been able to escape from a fire blowup - thanks to previous thinning work done along a forest road.

She called for much more aggressive thinning in the national forests - to protect old growth and wildlife.

Retired Forest Service scientist Phil Aune spoke about the need to thin out the forests for wildfire reduction and to decrease insect infestation.

California State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan, a lifelong firefighter, spoke of her efforts to include protection against burning embers in tougher building standards, to develop local wildfire and land use planning and to aggressively manage forest fuels around the house, near the towns and in the wildlands.

Dargan and Fites both endorsed the Quincy Library Group's approach as the best model around.

County supervisors from Shasta, Trinity and Siskiyou counties joined Plumas County Supervisor Robert Meacher. He spoke about the effects of wildfires on water quality, future flooding, climate change and air quality for all state residents. Meacher called for "a more holistic approach to manage our natural resources."

Former Plumas National Forest Supervisor (now Deputy Regional Forester) Jim Pea discussed the statewide impact on national forest lands.

Linda Blum from Quincy Library Group capped off the hearing by pointing to the successes of the group's thinning and watershed restoration projects. She gave some hope work could begin in the West on modifying wildfires, protecting wildlife and restoring watersheds.

In a statement released after the summit, Cox, who represents Plumas County, said, "As California faces one of the most active wildfire seasons ever experienced in its history, it is time to look at common-sense solutions to prevent wildfires."

Cox went on to say wildfire prevention and forest fuels management should be in the control of fire agencies and experts, not under the control of water board regulators or regional planning agencies.

According to information presented at the summit, fighting fires has had a major financial impact on the state budget. Last year, the state spent $298 million to fight wildfires. Lawmakers are currently trying to close a $15 billion hole in the state's budget.

"With the state's looming budget crisis, the state of California cannot afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something that could have been prevented," Cox said.

Sacramento reporting by John Sheehan
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