LOS ANGELES, Oct 29 (Reuters) - A perfect storm, an
apocalypse, a blaze of biblical proportions.
These were no cliches as an inferno swept up to the
stupendous Rim of the World, some 5,000 feet up in the San
Bernardino Mountains, and bore down on the weekend playground
for Angelenos of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.
Seventy thousand people fled their homes in evocative
places like Running Springs and Sky Forest, knowing that their
idyllic rural hamlets had long since become a tinderbox.
"Lake Arrowhead is the perfect storm of factors combining
to produce a really dangerous situation -- three or four years
of drought, a bark beetle infestation, decades of fire
suppression and really widespread residential development all
mixed up together," said Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society.
Even before the fire hit the picturesque lake and ski
resort on Wednesday, 70 percent of the majestic pine and fir
trees were dead, turned brown and dry by a bark beetle epidemic
that has devastated 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares) of
southern California forests.
California Gov. Gary Davis proclaimed a state of emergency
in the San Bernardino forest back in March, releasing funds to
allow forest and fire officials took to clear dead trees from
near roadways, clear evacuation routes and make fire plans.
But the scale of the problem was simply too great.
"There is forest as far as my eye can see and 70 percent of
the trees are dead. It's impossible to cut them all down. You
can't keep the beetles out. You can take one tree out and two
weeks later 100 more are dead," Joe New, a ranger with the U.S
Forestry Department, said as the fire neared Lake Arrowhead.
The bark beetle -- a creature as small as a grain of rice
-- saps the tree's ability to absorb moisture, killing the tree
but leaving it standing like a giant match with no resistance
to flame.
DISASTER AWAITS
Add to that a four-year drought, gusting winds, and a
policy of fighting small fires rather than letting Mother
Nature periodically clear the undergrowth -- and the San
Bernardino forest was a disaster waiting to happen.
"If fire hits the dead trees, they explode. It's like
throwing pitch on a campfire," said New.
Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of
Forestry, warned that when the week-long wildfires reached the
diseased trees around Lake Arrowhead, the blaze would be "of
biblical proportions."
"If it goes up, we will not have seen a conflagration of
those proportions once it gets started," she said.
People have moved into the San Bernardino mountains in
droves in the past 20 years as it evolved from a community
built on the logging industry to a recreational resort. For
months they had been well aware of the fire risk and that their
very encroachment into the wilderness was part of the problem.
"The fear was that all these factors would merge at the
same time, and they did. That's why the community was trying so
hard to do what they could to get the trees out before a fire
started. They were desperately trying to come up with some sort
of protection plan," said Candysse Miller, executive director
of the Insurance Information Network of California.
Miller had been working with local fire-safe councils to
try to reduce the risk. But she said that removing dead trees
from hilly slopes was both a dangerous and expensive task for
individual homeowners.
A "Healthy Forests" bill now going through Congress
attempts to address the long-running conflict between
environmentalists and the timber industry over the management
of the nation's forests.
The legislation would streamline environmental reviews to
speed up the thinning of national forests near communities in
order to reduce the risk of fires.
But some commentators are dubious about whether legislation
alone will prevent the kind of fires seen in southern
California this week.
"To pretend that you can solve this fire problem on the
cheap is a charade. It is a cruel hoax on the American people.
It is going to cost a lot of money and it is going to take a
couple of decades to reverse the situation we find ourselves
in," said Watson of the Wilderness Society.

Reut21:48 10-29-03