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State fire prevention fee money to fund Sierra dead tree removals

A large patch of dead trees are seen in the Sierra Nevada from a helicopter tour in December. The mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers around Bass Lake and throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought on by four years of extreme drought in California.
A large patch of dead trees are seen in the Sierra Nevada from a helicopter tour in December. The mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers around Bass Lake and throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought on by four years of extreme drought in California. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Money from a controversial “fire prevention” fee paid by many California foothill and mountain residents will be used to cut down trees that are dead or dying because of the drought and bark beetle infestation.

Local counties got $1.75 million from the State Responsibility Area fee.

About 37,700 home and business owners pay into the parcel fee that ranges from $117 to $152 annually. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association filed a class-action lawsuit against the state arguing that the fee actually was an illegal tax.

The association contends that, as a tax, the fire prevention fee violates Proposition 13 because it would require two-thirds approval in the state Legislature to pass. The association wants the fee refunded.

But that fee is critical to making the Sierra safer from catastrophic fires, said Daniel Berlant, a Sacramento-based Cal Fire spokesman.

“If we can prevent fires in the first place, then you are really saving money,” Berlant said.

Six counties from Kern to Tuolumne are facing some of the highest fire risks from dying trees, Berlant said.

Issuing grants to clear trees was a high priority. In 2014, there were about 3.3 million dead or dying trees in the Sierra. Last year, Berlant said, that number skyrocketed to 29 million.

“Those six counties are suffering and have an increased wildfire risk because of all the dead trees,” he said.

The projects include cutting down dead trees and increasing the distance between trees in fire-prone areas. In North Fork, the money will pay for a 10-acre site to store logs at the old timber mill. Other projects include cutting down dead and dying trees near Bass Lake.

In Fresno County, about $400,000 is paying for dead tree removal and removing combustible materials in Miramonte, near Shaver Lake and Meadow Lakes.

Pat Gallegos, project manager for the Highway 168 Fire Safe Council, said the removal projects are a start. The fire safe council pays contractors to clear the sites.

“We are looking at a couple hundred thousand trees dying in our corridor,” she said. “We consider them a hazard because they can fall on a house or people, and they are very susceptible to wildfires.”

Other counties getting tree-cutting project money are Mariposa, Kern, Tulare, and Tuolumne.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

State-approved fire prevention projects, by county

  • Tuolumne (5): $432,470
  • Fresno (4): $399,594
  • Kern (3): $296,350
  • Mariposa (3): $277,622
  • Madera: (3): $246,702
  • Tulare (1): $99,635
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