State: Bush ignored fire plea

CHARGES: Officials warned of 'tinder box'

Robert Salladay, Zachary Coile, Chronicle Political Writers
Friday, October 31, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle

    Sacramento -- California officials accused the Bush administration Thursday of ignoring urgent pleas months ago for emergency help to remove beetle-infested trees that experts warned could fuel a catastrophic Southern California fire.
    The U.S. Senate passed controversial legislation Thursday allowing the thinning of forests across the West, and another debate erupted over whether dire warnings about a bark beetle infestation were ignored in Washington. In April, Gov. Gray Davis requested $430 million to remove unhealthy trees on 415, 000 acres of forest, but the request for emergency funds went unanswered until last week -- and then was denied.
    "There was a reason the governor requested the declaration,'' said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio. "And I'm sure there are a lot of families without homes that are disappointed it wasn't approved.''
    Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, speaking in the Senate during Thursday's debate on the "Healthy Forests'' bill, complained that President Bush had failed to act on the state's request for help and that now Californians were suffering.
    "We named three of the four counties that are up in smoke, and we begged him to declare a disaster, we begged him,'' Boxer said before the bill passed 80-14. "We saw this coming a mile away.''

Bark beetles' damage
    For more than a year, California officials have fretted about an infestation of native beetles that drill into trees, mostly pine and fir. They feast on bark and carry a fungus that blocks a tree's vascular system from carrying water. Healthy trees normally can reject the beetles, but the bugs have thrived because a four-year drought has weakened hundreds of thousands of trees in Southern California, leaving them brittle tinder.
    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had rejected the April emergency request because it was clear the Department of Agriculture, which manages the U.S. Forest Service, was working on the problem and diverting money from other programs to tackle it. In addition, they said, $3.3 million originally designated for seismic safety was diverted in June to tackle the beetle problem in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
    "It's somewhat disingenuous to suggest there was no federal assistance, because in fact there was,'' said Chad Kolton, spokesman for FEMA.
    The Davis administration released an April 16 letter sent to Bush warning that the bark beetle infestation was threatening severe fires in three counties: Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino. Davis warned that 75,000 residents of mountain communities were threatened. He requested $300 million from the U.S. Forest Service and $130 million from a FEMA account of unused money set aside from previous disasters.
    "This situation is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state,'' Davis said in April, a month after he declared three counties in a state of emergency because of the infestation and the potential for major wildfires fueled by Santa Ana winds.
    Eight days later, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers pleaded with federal authorities to approve Davis' request, saying "this infestation has created a tinder box of such magnitude that loss of life and resources would be incomprehensible should fire break out." The letter was signed by Boxer, and Republican Reps. Mary Bono of Palm Springs, Jerry Lewis of Redlands (San Bernardino County), Darrell Issa of Vista (San Diego County), David Dreier of San Dimas (Los Angeles County) and Duncan Hunter of Alpine (San Diego County), among others. Hunter's home was destroyed in the recent fire.

Bad rap for FEMA?
    Bono told Gannett News Service on Wednesday, as fires raged across Southern California, that FEMA "should have helped us. There has got to be egg on their face today.'' But her chief of staff, Frank Cullen, told The Chronicle that Bono felt FEMA "may be getting a bad rap." There is considerable debate, he said, over whether FEMA should use its money to head off potential catastrophes rather than responding to current disasters.
    Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also signed the letter, had been warning Congress and federal authorities for months about the bark beetle problem. Along with Lewis, she helped secure $30 million to combat the infestation -- but approval came only last month. Another $10 million was added Monday in emergency appropriations as the largest fire in modern California history raged.
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Feinstein, said "we have not gotten strong support from Congress in the past'' to deal with the situation. The Senate in July approved $25 million to battle the beetle, but the money was stripped from the budget by a conference committee.
    "...Congress has been faced with record deficits, and it's very tough to get money for even emergency issues,'' Gantman said, "and sometimes in Congress there is a reluctance to give money to California.''
    An estimated 1 million trees have been killed because of the beetle, but it's unclear how much of the current fire has been exacerbated by beetle- killed trees. State Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, R-Ranch Cucamonga, said the fire in his district most likely would have raged even without the beetle infestation's killing trees.
    But he said the four-year drought, the beetles and the lack of forest- thinning work in mountain communities nevertheless made the problem worse. He likened the situation to pneumonia -- survivable in the young but deadly to the old.
    "That said, if we had gotten more money quicker,'' Brulte said, "we could have taken out a lot more trees.''

Forest Service criticized
    The Forest Service has been criticized for devoting too much of its hazardous fuels reduction money to Northern California rather than to the forests of Southern California. The agency had initially proposed just $2 million this past year to treat bug-killed trees in the San Bernardino National Forest.
    But as the bark beetle crisis worsened, with an estimated 350,000 bug- killed acres as of August in the San Bernardino forest, California's regional forester Jack Blackwell boosted funding to $12 million by persuading other forest supervisors around the state to give up money to address the threat of a catastrophe there, according to spokesman Matt Mathes.
Environmentalists have accused the administration and House Republican leaders of using the current fires to win support for their legislation that aims to increase logging throughout the forest. And the Senate rejected an amendment that would have funneled more money to fire protection efforts in forest areas closest to communities.
    But supporters of the legislation are looking to the Southern California fires as proof that forests need to be thinned.
    During the debate over Healthy Forests, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, took issue with Boxer's comments that Bush ignored the problem, saying she and other lawmakers had repeatedly opposed legislation to speed thinning of forests, including those hard-hit by the bark beetle.
    "Forest scientists not a year ago, five years ago were pleading with us to create activity in our forest and in the San Bernardino (forest) to stop a catastrophic fire that was going to happen some day,'' Craig said. "And yet this Senate and, my guess is, the senator from California's vote denied'' it.
    Boxer shot back that she had often supported measures to removed beetle- infested trees, but not measures that "say the only way to have a healthy forest is to cut down every tree, particularly old growth.''