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County: Officials to boost prevention measures in forest

7 May 2004

ANNA DAVISON

NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Santa Barbara News-Press

The fire that's blazed through more than 1,100 acres in the vicinity of Lake Cachuma is burning like a summer fire, authorities say, thanks to a recent spell of sizzling temperatures, low humidity and a four-year drought that has left much of the forest tinder-dry.

"The conditions we're seeing right now are typically what we'd see in mid to late July," said Mark Nunez, battalion chief with Los Padres National Forest.

After last year's devastating fire season, which charred 750,000 acres across the Southland and killed 24 people, wary forest managers are planning more intensive "fuel treatment" and prescribed burns here.

This year, they've got more than $1 million in additional funding to help, by way of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act passed last year. The U.S. Forest Service is in the process of surveying forests in the Southland - including Los Padres - and identifying areas where there are a lot of dead trees and other "fuel."

"We have begun planning and preparing a number of areas across the forest for fuel treatment," said forest planner Jim Turner.

Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Good said the agency also hopes to add more fire-prevention positions, thanks to the extra funding.

"We hope to expand to treat more of the forest" she said, adding that "we already have a very active fuel-treatment and prescribed burn program."

Chief Nunez said live-fuel moisture levels in Los Padres are now in the low to mid-80s. Typically, they would be between 110 percent and 120 percent at this time of year, with the critical level set at 60 percent.

The Cachuma Fire, which is blazing through brush that hasn't burned in 40 years and so far has cost $450,000, reflects that It's an intense burn with flames up to l00 feet high.

"It's a real complete burn that's consuming most of the vegetation," Chief Nunez said.

Los Padres might be dry, but things aren't as bad here as in parts of the Inland Empire, where bark beetles have tunneled through thousands of drought-stricken trees, leaving' plenty of dead, dry wood to fuel fires.

Beetles have made their mark in the Big Pines area of Los Padres, leaving between 10 percent and 20 percent of trees dead in some, patches, Ms. Good said. The Forest Service is working with the community on a plan to deal with the situation there, she added.

As for plans to step up fire-prevention efforts in other areas, Ms. Good said "it would be wonderful" if the service could put the extra money into action immediately, but there's plenty of planning required before clearing dead trees or scheduling a prescribed burn.

Natural and archaeological resources need to be assessed and weather conditions carefully considered. Ms. Good said the Healthy Forests Restoration Act does streamline this planning process, but it could still take a year or more to put these additional measures in, place.

"We can't go right out and start burning," she said. "We have to evaluate the area pretty carefully."

The Forest Service is waiting for a chance to carry out a prescribed burn in the West Camino Cielo area, but the weather's hardly been suitable, with' temperatures recently soaring to record highs.

Ms. Good said she wasn't aware of any prescribed burns scheduled for the area where the Cachuma Fire is now burning.

However, she said it's not feasible to just let that blaze burn.

"That's not really an option," she said, "because of the speed the fire can exit the backcountry and go into a community. You don't have the options you might have in less-developed environments. Communities are just too close."

e-mail: adavison@newspress.com