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Aftermath of California fires

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The recent Southern California wildfires are now being called one of the worst disasters in state history, ranking up there with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Nearly a million acres were consumed and close to 3,000 homes were lost.

Among the hardest hit were over a dozen reservations, a majority of them in San Diego County.

Unlike the 1906 earthquake, many claim fires of this magnitude were preventable and discussions have started to try and prevent a disaster like this from happening again.

The problem agreed on by all sides is that fuel loads have built up in California's wild lands to unprecedented levels through fire suppression. Fire is a part of the California ecosystem brought on by a Mediterranean-type climate that features cool rainy winters and desert-dry summers.

The winter rains allow for a build up of vegetation, which nature counterbalanced by allowing frequent burns to break down the excesses. However, for the past century fire suppression has been the rule and in some of the burned areas vegetation had been allowed to build up for that long.

Compounding the problem is two centuries of introduced plants that have flourished in the Golden State's mild climate and contributed to ever increasing fuel loads.

Now in light of news that outgoing Gov. Gray Davis had requested federal funding to clear out excess wood and plants and was turned down by the Bush Administration, the finger pointing has begun.

Bush has been accused of playing politics by turning down Davis' request so to help Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's recall election bid.

Bush administration officials have responded that environmentalists are to blame by opposing most of his Healthy Forests Initiative, which seeks to allow timber companies to thin forests.

However, many experts see this as simplistic as California and most of the western United States features several different kinds of ecosystems, or areas of different dominant plant communities.

Willie Pink, an environmental consultant, who among others, advises the Pechanga tribes, says there is no cure all for the west's wild lands as the Healthy Forests Initiative prescribes. He pointed out that management is very specific to each plant community and only in some limited instances can tree thinning by timber companies actually do the trick.

Part of the problem, Pink said, is that humans have taken themselves out of the equation and the current view is to treat nature like a museum piece rather than something humans interact with. In pre-European times, Pink said, Indians knew how to manage the land and often would start fires to keep the land clear and not allow fuel loads to build up.

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"We can do some simple common sense things, such as allow campers to collect dead wood from forest and brush areas instead have having them bring the wood in," Pink said.

Pink maintains that other measures, such as allowing more controlled burns can also alleviate the problem.

The last suggestion is perhaps the most controversial and sometimes problematic. A few years ago what started as a controlled burn turned into a major conflagration in New Mexico that claimed homes and lives.

Daniel Macon, who works for a sub-office of the United States Department of Agriculture that advises private property owners on fire proofing their property, said that controlled burns face a number of regulatory hoops and are often squelched by local air quality resources boards.

"The problem with this," Macon said, "Is when there is a catastrophic fire like the ones we just had in Southern California, that is far more harmful to the environment."

Macon's reasoning is that when things like homes and cars are engulfed it allows far worse chemicals to get into the air than would be produced by grasses and woody plants.

The Pechanga reservation managed to escape this round of Southern California fires, however, Gary DuBois, who works for the Pechanga Cultural Resources Center said it was largely due to luck.

DuBois said the tribe is holding meetings to make their reservation more fire safe. Like many of the reservations that were consumed in the blazes, Pechanga sits in a narrow, picturesque canyon with only a single road leading out and flames have lapped at the remoter parts of their lands several times including once just two years ago.

Though Pechanga has a fire department on site, Du Bois noted that this was not necessarily a help to other area reservations such as San Manuel, whose fire fighters were assisting in off-reservation efforts when their own fire broke out.

For now, DuBois said that Pechanga is spearheading an effort to work with the federal government to allow controlled burns and other vegetation clearing efforts on and around their lands. Pechanga has also been advising tribal members who have a build up of plants and other flammable materials too close to their houses.

Though the federal aid money is sure to flow in now, Willie Pink said much of it will be misdirected and go solely to communities rather than to wild land management, which he called a "band-aid solution." He also stressed the importance of re-vegetation efforts with native seed stocks to prevent erosion and mudslides.

Pink said that it is still unknown, however, after such high intensity blazes how much of the soil has been rendered sterile. Plus there are also questions as to how much native plant seed stock various federal and state agencies have in reserve to cover the devastated area.

"I just don't think they planned for a fire of this scale."