California Moves Toward Permanent Fire Rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California regulators are trying to prevent wildfires by making it quicker and cheaper to thin timberland on private property near mountain communities and along evacuation routes.

The Board of Forestry and Fire Protection decided Wednesday that temporary forest-thinning rules enacted in June, which cut regulatory fees and notification periods, should be made permanent starting next year. Before formal consideration can take place this fall, however, public hearings must be held.

Currently, only timber companies have the equipment and experience to take immediate advantage of rules, which the board approved 4 to 3.

The three dissenting members cited conflicts between the rules and a similar bill pending before the Legislature. They wanted to wait for lawmakers to act later this month before moving forward to enact permanent rules.

The board's regulations allow forest-thinning within a quarter-mile of vulnerable communities and within 500 feet of isolated homes. The 500-foot rule also applies to roadways, power lines and ridge tops intended to function as firebreaks, but opens miles of remote forest to easier logging.

The forestry board estimates at least 1 million to 3 million of the 6 million to 7 million acres of privately owned timberland could be thinned under its relaxed rules.

By contrast, the pending legislation would encourage forest-thinning across the entire 6 million to 7 million acres. But it differs on the size of trees that can be cut, and makes allowances for just a 500-foot radius around communities.

Proponents hope that making the rules permanent will encourage a new industry of contractors who will remove overgrowth for small timberland owners who can least afford the time and cost of thinning their property.