All around the mountain top the trees are dying. Lake Arrowhead. Wrightwood. Crestline. Running Springs. Big Bear.

Literally thousands of pines are being ravaged by drought and by beetles in the San Bernardino Mountains, creating a fire and fall hazard to some 90,000 properties. And that's not counting the public lands overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

"It's the worst predictable disaster facing the state," San Bernardino County Fire Marshall Peter Brierty said in a meeting with the Big Bear Fire Safe Council on Wednesday, May 7. "It is community-wide, mountain top-wide."

Time is running out for options on how to avert what potentially could become the worst natural disaster in Southern California history. To deal with the threat, officials formed the Mountain Area Safety Task Force, made up of representatives from the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and area fire safe councils. During the past several months MAST has worked on emergency response issues related to the problem, as well as organizing the tree removal process on non-Forest Service land.

"We've issued notices to about 2,000 people in the last 90 days," Brierty said. "So far we've gotten about a 40 percent compliance. That's thousands of trees that have been chopped down."

Their current efforts focus on two areas - along all evacuation routes down the mountain, and on the north shore of Lake Arrowhead. The mortality rate on the north shore of the lake is currently 80 to 100 percent. But concentrating in those two areas doesn't mean the threat does not exist elsewhere, including Big Bear.

Brierty admitted he could not predict what will happen in Big Bear. But he stressed that there are many trees in the Big Bear area that are already showing signs of distress.

"This fire, if it starts in one neck of the woods, doesn't stop until it runs out of fuel," he said. "It doesn't respect district boundaries or city boundaries. It doesn't respect who pays for this or who pays for that. This is something that affects the entire mountain top."

With literally thousands of trees needing to be cut down, MAST has worked hard to find ways to lower the cost of tree removal for property owners.

One example, with the high volume of tree removal landfill wood waste has increased from an average of five tons a day to about 250 tons. That exceeds the daily total volume of trash and garbage going to the landfill from all the mountain top communities. Another problem has been the lack of enough companies available to do the actual work.

Money has trickled in from FEMA, about $2.7 million, and that is helping to get things going.

"A significant portion of that FEMA money went into handling, managing and supporting how we manage our solid waste," Brierty said.

Wood from the tree removal is now being chipped for use as fuel by an electricity facility near Palm Springs. Caltrans is using wood chips on the sides of highways and freeways. And there's plans to tap into the market for compost and mulch.

Officials have also cut through red tape in order to quicken the pace of their programs. It took only a month for land use approval permits to go through in order to create a staging area to make wood chips in Lake Arrowhead. Officials have also worked with Southern California Edison to lower the cost whenever tree removal requires the de-energizing of electrical wires.

MAST hopes to "organize people on one street or one block so that a line can be de-energized and all the trees can be done on the block at the same time," Brierty said.

Still, with all that MAST has initiated on the mountain top, it's only a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done.

"We still don't have a big bank of money," Brierty said. "We don't have enough tree removal companies. We have a solid waste system that is incapable of handling what it now has to handle."

The FEMA money is a good start, Brierty said, but it's not enough.

"These trees are rotting two to five times faster than normal," he said. "If we don't take them down in a reasonable amount of time, they will fall down."

Or serve as fuel for a potential life-threatening fire all across the mountain top.

Contact Kathy Portie at (909) 866-3456, ext. 135 or by e-mail at kportie@bigbeargrizzly.net.

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