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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Funds thinning for fire project

CHEWELAH, Wash. – When Chuck and Polly Messenger designed their new home, they thought of wildfire first.

There will be no rustic shake shingles, no wood siding and no trees brushing up against their home in rural Stevens County. “It’s too much of a risk,” Chuck Messenger said last week, surveying the still-vacant lot. “You’re right next to the canyon ridge, and a fire can run up here so fast.”

Foresters consider the 104-lot Flowery Trail subdivision, located near 49 Degrees North Ski Area, and the surrounding thickets of trees a volatile mix. Seventy years ago, a fire did roar through this canyon, and the area is likely to burn again at some point.

Three years ago, a $40,000 thinning project, paid for with federal grants, created clear spaces around some of the homes. Another $120,000 worth of work is needed. But money for pre-emptive strikes to protect communities from wildfires appears to be drying up, even as the Bush administration spends hundreds of millions of dollars on fuels reduction elsewhere in national forests.

Forest thinning should start near communities, where people and property are at most risk, said Michelle Ackermann, regional director for The Wilderness Society in Seattle.

“We don’t see the communities getting the kind of work done on the ground to protect themselves,” she said.

The Flowery Trail project has been a finalist for funding for several years. But the state – which doles out the federal money – always runs short.

In Washington and Oregon, federal funding for fire protection activities has dropped by a third, from $7.5 million in 2002 to $4.9 million last year. The funds pay for activities such as tree thinning near communities, fire-prevention campaigns, and technical assistance for rural fire departments.

The programs are targeted for additional cuts in President Bush’s 2006 budget proposal, though the House and Senate’s draft budgets restore part of the funding.

“We’re trying to get more money for these rural areas, but the budget is really tight,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council.

In Northeast Washington, an eclectic group is lobbying for additional money to protect communities. The effort includes loggers, environmentalists, county commissioners and rural fire departments.

“The common ground is that we need to protect these communities, and this is the way to do it,” Petersen said last week.

From an environmentalist’s standpoint, people who feel safe in their homes are much more likely to accept some reintroduction of fire into the ecosystem, Petersen said.

In previous years, the Lands Council received grants to go door-to-door in Northeast Washington, encouraging rural landowners to create a 200-foot clear space around their homes.

“We’d drive up these rutty roads, past barking dogs and no trespassing signs,” Petersen said. “You would not see the house until you got within 50 feet of it. Trees would be literally draped across the roof.”

Lands Council canvassers knocked on thousands of doors and wrote 170 individual fire plans.

The grants paid contractors to cut down trees near the houses and clear away brush. Landowners signed contracts, agreeing to maintain the clear space.

“I see it as kind of a one-time boost,” Petersen said. “If we can get the big things done, they can keep the little saplings down, and the wood pile away from the house. … There are hundreds of homes out there in northeastern Washington that could use this.”

The thinning work also created economic benefits for communities. In the late 1980s, the Vaagen Bros. sawmill in Colville was renovated to process logs with tops as small as 4½-inches. “That’s not much larger than a pop can,” noted Russ Vaagen, the mill’s vice president of operations.

The mill is looking for the type of small-diameter timber that comes off of thinning projects, he said. On a typical job, thinning trees around a home on a five-acre tract would produce three truckloads of logs suitable for 2-by-4s, and three truckloads of smaller logs that could be sold for chips.

The mill would earn about $1,000 after expenses on the job, Vaagen said, and provide a day’s work for four employees.

“Historically, the position of the timber industry and the positions of those in the environmental community were very different,” Vaagen said. “We’ve seen that we have a lot more common interests than we thought.”

Fire awareness, meanwhile, is growing in the Flowery Trail subdivision.

When John Eminger, the owner of 49 Degrees North, moved into the subdivision 10 years ago, the homeowner’s association required shake roofs. Eminger set off a neighborhood tiff when he replaced his shake roof with metal.

But now, he said, “people are becoming more educated on wildfire. People are beginning to realize that there are a lot of overstocked stands.”

More homeowners are interested in having their lots cleared, Eminger said. Some who can afford it are doing the work themselves.

The Messengers cut down all the trees on their lot. Most of the trees were twiggy lodgepole pines. “I call them fireweed,” Chuck Messenger said. “We’ll replace them with aspen.”

Two lots below him have been thinned, providing additional fire protection for the couple’s new house. But more thinning is needed.

The subdivision is built on forest land leased from the state. Some one-acre tracts contain up to 1,000 lodgepole pines. The trees are 70 years old, and starting to lose their vigor, said Dick Dunton, a wildland fire safety consultant. “It’s ripe for another burn,” he said.

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