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Less money for thinning forests in fire-scarred San Jacinto Mountains

August 16th, 2013 | by Ian James | Comments

A home in the Twin Pines area remains unscathed from the Silver Fire as the area is scorched in a checkered pattern around it on Sunday. (Crystal Chatham, The Desert Sun)

A home in the Twin Pines area remains unscathed from the Silver Fire as the area is scorched in a checkered pattern around it on Sunday. (Crystal Chatham, The Desert Sun)

Two intense wildfires in less than a month charred more than 18,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the San Jacinto Mountains, and Forest Service budget figures show that in the past few years the agency has had much less money for a program that aims to reduce hazards by thinning out forests.

The San Bernardino National Forest is one of 18 national forests in California, and like others has faced budget cutbacks in recent years.

The national forest was allotted more than $6.2 million in the 2006 fiscal year for its hazardous fuels reduction program, and that year the Forest Service carried out work on 8,362 acres using methods such as controlled burns and removal of brush and dead material using heavy machinery.

In 2007, the amount appropriated was $7 million, and 11,361 acres were treated.

In 2008, an additional $38.9 million was approved by Congress in an emergency measure, on top of the $1.7 million originally budgeted. The Forest Service carried out forest fuels reduction work on 18,438 acres.

In 2009, Congress again provided an emergency appropriation of $22 million, on top of the regular amount of $2.5 million, and accomplished work on 4,523 acres.

Since then, funding has declined during the economic downturn, and the amounts of acreage cleared have also fallen dramatically.

2010: $2.6 million and 2,473 acres.

2011: $2.3 million and 1,358 acres.

2012: $2.1 million and 1,233 acres.

“Certainly when more funds are available, more work is accomplished. That’s clearly dependent on what the priorities are nationally,” said Rob Griffith, the Forest Service’s regional fuels program coordinator in Vallejo.

He said the San Bernardino National Forest continues to be a priority area for the Forest Service’s hazardous fuels reduction program.

Based on the figures, a question emerges that appears to have no easy answer: Might the smaller amounts of acreage treated have had an influence on the destructive Silver Fire and Mountain Fire?

Forest Service officials didn’t offer any opinions about that question.

Regardless of whether there were links between the declining budgets and the wildfires, one thing seems clear about the vast swaths of the San Jacinto Mountains that have been left blackened: The fires have taken care of thinning out much of the forest for the Forest Service.

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