Desiccated Calif. Forests Remain at Risk

Flames that raced over nearly 100,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest (search) didn't touch even larger expanses of dead trees ravaged by an ongoing beetle infestation -- leaving them primed to burn.

The so-called Old Fire (search) made only a small dent in the 474,000 acres of dead and dying trees within the forest, burning perhaps just 10 percent to 15 percent, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ruth Wenstrom said Friday.

Fire danger remains extremely high on federal and private land within the forest, which straddles the San Bernardino (search) and San Jacinto mountain ranges. The situation is the same in the nearby Cleveland and Angeles national forests.

"It is still a very large disaster waiting to happen. By no means are we out of danger," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss said.

Years of persistent drought have weakened trees and left them vulnerable to several native species of bark beetle that feast on their inner bark. The rice grain-sized beetles began exploding in population more than two years ago and have killed more than a million trees in the San Bernardino National Forest alone.

Trees are still dying, outstripping ongoing efforts to thin the woods.

"We will have new attacks all the way into the fall months, so there will be additional trees dying, replacing the ones we're cutting down," said Kevin Turner, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Riverside County Fire Department. "Right now, we're in a downward spiral, but we're chasing the problem."

The fires did not stem the advance of the beetles. In fact, it could encourage their spread as they begin preying on trees stressed by the heat of the fires, Wenstrom said.

Cool, wet weather blanketed the forest beginning Thursday, slowing the fire's advance and offering a respite. But officials still fear the weather could flip-flop and usher in a return of the fiercely hot Santa Ana winds that contributed to the spread of the fire.

"The weather is helping for the moment, but the risk has not gone away," said John Ladley, a Forest Service recreation officer in the San Jacinto Mountains. "All we need is warmer temperatures and the Santa Ana winds again."

In the San Jacinto Mountains, to the southeast of the area burned by the Old Fire, as many 60 percent of the forest stands dead, said Boss, who lives in the alpine town of Idyllwild.

Fires have spared that area for now, but ongoing efforts to remove dead trees from the densely inhabited forest have been slow, hampered by lack of money, Boss said. As many as 100,000 people live within the boundaries of the San Bernardino National Forest. Many of those people have been evacuated and are waiting to return to see if their homes are still standing.

"We are going to be living with dying trees for some time," Boss said.

State officials said they need $450 million to clear beetle-killed trees across Southern California. Congress has appropriated $43 million; the Bush administration rebuffed state requests for additional federal funding last week, just as the fires gained traction.

Logging crews hired by Southern California Edison temporarily moved Friday from the burned areas to the San Jacintos to continue felling trees, Turner said.

"We'd love to say we will be successful and we'll get the dead trees and brush out before a fire event, but there's a lot of work before we can ever claim that," Turner said.

Don Bechtol, 47, who was evacuated Saturday with his family from their Running Springs home, said it was clear the threat of fires would linger.

"They've got to get rid of them trees," Bechtol said from the San Bernardino evacuation center where he and his family have been living.