September 14, 2005

Park Service moves ripped

Response to desert fire faulted

Megan Blaney
San Bernardino County Sun

As San Bernardino County joined the nation in recognizing National Disaster Preparedness Month, an ensuing discussion illuminated concerns about agency cooperation during an enormous fire in the Mojave Desert earlier this summer

County resident Jim Walker accused the National Park Service of carelessness and negligence in the wildfire that burned more than 70,000 acres in the Mojave National Preserve in June.

"You talk about public preparedness," Walker said Tuesday after the Board of Supervisors meeting. "Where was ours? Why did they let my ranch burn?"

The National Park Service has a history of tense relationships with landowners and ranchers, many of whom preceded the 1994 arrival of the federal agency. Before the land was designated a national preserve, it was under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.

Walker said he had planned to retire next year in one of the "inholdings" private land at the national preserve. The Park Service wants to rid the preserve of homes to enhance the area's tourism appeal, he said.

"They just wanted to get us out of their land," he said. "They decided to let (the fire) burn us out."

Park Ranger Linda Slater said every effort was made to contain the fires. When the ranger who responded to the fire realized the fire was too big, he called the Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team a group of city, county and state fire agencies that responds to disasters.

The dispatcher sent help from the Needles Fire Station immediately and sent more than 1,000 firefighters in the following days, Slater said.

"It wasn't a let-burn," Slater said. "They just don't have a leg to stand on to say the fire wasn't fought."

She said the National Park Service does not intentionally allow fires to burn out residents and taught an informational class on how to protect homes from fire in February.

Shortly after the fires, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus wrote a scathing review of what he saw as the Park Service's lack of cooperation with the county.

"One of the County's specific inputs was to retain the ranching infrastructure . . .," Postmus wrote. "Instead, NPS set about buying out and getting people off the land almost immediately."

He said the county was concerned with the Park Service's management decisions, including the removal of the ranching community which eliminated the grazing animals that kept vegetation trimmed low.

He also questioned the removal of the preserve's water infrastructure and the Park Service's regulatory control of county roads in the preserve.

Slater said she has heard of the benefits the ranching community could provide, but did not ascribe to them.

She said the land where cows had grazed was just as burned as the rest of the landscape and said the springs that used to constitute the water infrastructure now creates lush vegetation habitat for wildlife.

Park Service interim Superintendent Larry Whalon said that because of the fire's strength, the weather and an unexpected incident where the fire jumped a road that was expected to be a fire break, Walker's property couldn't be saved.

"Everything was done to try to minimize losses to park structures and facilities. There was never a command to any firefighter to let the fire burn," he said. "We did deploy the resources we had in strategic areas where we thought we could stop the fire."

Postmus hopes for cooperation from the Park Service and called for a partnership of the federal, state and local governments.

Walker said cooperation from the Park Service is crucial. "To the 14 people who lost their homes, it was as big a disaster as New Orleans," he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus criticized the National Park Service's management of the Mojave National Preserve in a letter written shortly after the June fires.

"San Bernardino County's concerns with the management of the Preserve go beyond the fire and the perceived lack of aggressiveness in preventing or suppressing it, including but not limited to:

▪ "The removal and obliteration of the ranching community within the Preserve;

▪ "The removal and obliteration of the water infrastructure that served both livestock and wildlife;

▪ "The regulatory control exerted by NPS over the use of County owned and maintained roads within the Preserve;

▪ "Strong-armed law-enforcement tactics exerted by NPS on neighboring private lands within the Preserve;

▪ "The dogged pursuit of reclaiming property with alleged non-conforming uses."