Logging Allowed Near San Diego to Prevent Wildfires

The threat of wildfires has logging crews working in the mountains east of San Diego for the first time in a century. Hundreds of thousands of dead trees are being cut down. As Erik Anderson of member station KPBS reports, local officials hope removal of the dead wood will take fuel away from future fires.

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Across the country from the path of Hurricane Dennis the threat of wildfires has logging crews working in the mountains east of San Diego for the first time in a century. Hundreds of thousands of dead trees are being cut down. As Erik Anderson of member station KPBS reports, local officials hope that removing the deadwood will take fuel away from future fires.

ERIK ANDERSON reporting:

Jess McCaushum's(ph) chain saw is nearly as long as he is tall. He swings the blade into the back of his pickup truck.

(Soundbite of chain saw hitting truck)

ANDERSON: McCaushum wipes the grime from his brow and goes about sharpening the chain saw's teeth. The Northern California lumberjack has spent 30 years cutting down trees, but this is the first time he's worked this far south.

Mr. JESS McCAUSHUM (Lumberjack): This is a highly skilled--it may not look like it, but it's a highly skilled occupation, falling timber.

ANDERSON: McCaushum is working in the rugged countryside of east of San Diego. California's largest wildfire moved through this area two years ago, charring hundreds of thousands of acres. The lumberjack scrambles up the side of the hill to a small stand of branchless oaks. In minutes, McCaushum has cut deep into the trunk of an 80-foot-tall tree.

(Soundbite of chain saw)

ANDERSON: He stands beside the blackened trunk and nudges it gently toward the road.

(Soundbite of tree falling)

ANDERSON: Hand crews will finish the job. They'll pull the trunk down onto the road and load it onto a truck. This team is one of several contractors hired by San Diego County to remove deadwood near homes and roads. County spokesman Bill Polick says it's part of the country's fire safety and fuels reduction project, a $45 million plan paid for by federal and county grants. Polick says 100,000 trees from samplings to full-size pines and oaks have already been cut down, and nearly 200,000 more will follow.

Mr. BILL POLICK (Spokesman, San Diego County): We're only going after dead, dying and diseased trees. We're not taking out living trees. We want to keep this environment as pristine as we possibly can.

ANDERSON: Biologist Richard Halsey wants a pristine environment as well. While most experts see value in thinning the forest of dead and dying trees, Halsey believes the dead trees are simply a sign that the climate is changing and that there isn't enough water to support all of the trees. Halsey wonders whether spending $45 million to cut down the dead trees might be better spent addressing a more immediate fire danger.

Mr. RICHARD HALSEY (Biologist): In this area right here you've got a tremendous amount of non-native grasses. That's a greater fire hazard than the dead trees because they're the things that are going to ignite.

ANDERSON: Halsey concedes, however, that removing all the non-native grasses is nearly an impossible job. Meanwhile, the tree thinning goes on.

(Soundbite of truck)

ANDERSON: A few miles away, a blue semi truck pulls into a meadow just off a winding road. Small trees and branches are packed into the open-air trailer. A worker hops onto the back of the truck and deploys a special crane.

(Soundbite of crane being deployed)

ANDERSON: The crane looks very much like one of those games you would see in a bowling alley where you try to pick up the stuffed animal with a claw, only here it's picking up logs.

(Soundbite of crane)

ANDERSON: San Diego County Fire Marshall Ralph Steinhoff says this part of San Diego used to be the home of the region's logging industry. He says it's an amazing sight to see logging here again.

Fire Marshall RALPH STEINHOFF (San Diego County): To our knowledge it hasn't been available for--at least in the area, for over a hundred years, since they last had saw mills up here in Julian.

ANDERSON: Steinhoff says all of the wood being cut down is being used for something productive. Trees get turned into fence posts, pallets, power plant fuel or wood chips. He believes this tree-trimming project will reduce the threat of a catastrophic wildfire, but the dead tree problem is far from solved. There are still about 62,000 acres of dead forest spread throughout these mountains. For NPR News, I'm Eric Anderson in San Diego.

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