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September 14, 2007
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Funds to clear federal land low


Wildfire danger is high and many homeowners have worked furiously all summer long to meet insurance and state defensible space requirements for their properties.

But coffers are empty for fuel reduction projects on adjacent, overgrown federal land " often considered the highest risk areas for wildfires.

Residents have expressed concern about the situation, but progress has been slow.

"People have been building next to (these) public lands where they never were before," said Jim Eicher, associate field manager of BLM's Folsom Field Office.

Bureau of Land Management oversees 17,354 acres of land sprinkled throughout forested neighborhoods of Nevada County called urban interface areas. During the past 10 years, these areas have seen a population explosion, increasing the probability of a destructive fire.

The regional office has identified 103 communities at risk with fire concern or a history of fires in the area. The Folsom office manages 14 central California communities, including Nevada County.

Although property owners are required to clear 100 feet around their homes, much of BLM's land is dense with 10-foot tall manzanita bushes, because no federal money is available to clear the land.

Earlier this summer, Nevada County District 4 Supervisor Hank Weston, a former fire chief, took rural concerns to state legislators. The supervisor sent letters to U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Congressman John Doolittle, R-Roseville, visited a Nevada County mountain home in July.

"We're trying to get Congress to give BLM more (mechanisms) to deal with this," Weston said.

Last year, state law increased the required swath of defensible space property owners must clear around their homes from 30 feet to 100 feet.

Nevada County residents who share property boundaries with BLM land have expressed frustration to Weston over the federal agency's lack of funding for fuel reduction. Some insurance companies may drop a claim if adjacent public land is left dense with brush, Weston said.

"Money is always an issue. Everyone has needs for fuel reduction. We just don't have the funds to supply the needs," Eicher said.

Each year, BLM is allotted enough money for a handful of projects. Most recently work in the Round Mountain and North San Juan areas were successfully cleared.

The agency recently expanded its Fuels Variance Program, which allows property owners living adjacent to BLM lands to submit a request to perform the work themselves without reimbursement.

The Nevada County Fire Safe Council has a free chipping program for private property owners but doesn't work on public lands, said Joanne Drummond of Nevada County Fire Safe Council.

"There's such an enormous workload. It's going to take a little energy from everybody to make this work," Eicher said.

Clearing forested lands can be delicate work because of natural resources like sensitive or endangered plant species and archeological sites, the land manager is responsible for protecting. Every proposed clearing project must first undergo an

environmental survey.

"We can't go out there and hack away," Eicher said.

Prescribed burning, the choice of some environmental advocates, has become a less acceptable way for BLM to manage forest lands in close proximity to neighborhoods.

Instead chipping and mastication is preferred, but is costly and requires maintenance every few years, Eicher said.

With the north easterly winds of September beginning to blow and regional forests choked with tinder dry vegetation, fire fighters are poised to attack the smallest flare up. The 49er fire started in September, Weston recalled.

"It's so dry now. When you get that north wind up here and a fire starts, it's just disastrous.

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To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@the union.com or call 477-4231.


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The Union Updated Sep 17, 2007 04:50AM Published Sep 14, 2007 03:00AM Copyright 2007 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.