August 20, 2006

Handling of '05 Hackberry fire called inadequate

'Too many structures burned,' says Lewis,
Mojave chief defends Park Service

By George Watson, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Historic Pettit corral burned to the ground.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jerry Lewis criticized the National Park Service's handling of a 2005 wildfire in the Mojave National Preserve.

In a March 22 letter, Lewis, a Redlands Republican, wrote that "the appropriateness and responsiveness" of the park service's management of the Hackberry Complex Fire needed to be closely examined.

"In my opinion, too many structures burned during this fire," Lewis wrote in his letter to the agency's director, Fran Minella. "I would like to know how this happened and what steps the NPS will take to insure (sic) this doesn't happen again."

Apparently, the agency's fire management priorities remain an issue, not only for Lewis but at least one San Bernardino County leader. At the heart of the matter appears to be a divide over how wildfires are fought by firefighters -- whether the primary action should be to defend the occasional homes in the preserve or the vast environment that makes up the area.

Lewis was not available for comment. His spokesman, Jim Specht, said the congressman remains concerned about the matter and has a staff member keeping track of the issues.

Last Tuesday, a resident whose property was engulfed in flames from that wildfire sought help from the county's Board of Supervisors. Jim Walker, of Anaheim, told the supervisors that he feared another wildfire would cause similar results for others who own property in the Mojave National Preserve.

Board Chairman Bill Postmus, whose 1st District encompasses the High Desert, had stepped out of the meeting at the time and missed Walker's comments.

But as soon as Walker concluded speaking, Postmus' chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, strode to a microphone.

"I can't disagree with much of what he actually said, and I just want to update you on where our office is at," Mitzelfelt told the three supervisors in attendance.

Postmus believes the problems, Mitzelfelt said, could be an "outgrowth of the park service's unwillingness to work cooperatively with the county, and part of that is their refusal to adopt, update and maintain partnerships with the county as the (Bureau of Land Management) did when the BLM had management of the preserve."

Dennis Schramm, the Mojave National Preserve's supervisor, disagreed with Lewis and Postmus.

The Hackberry fire, which charred 70,000 acres of land filled with pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, was an anomaly caused by a destructive compilation of weather conditions, he said.

"This was an event that had never been seen before in this part of the desert," Schramm said.

The Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 through the California Desert Protection Act -- despite the objections of the county. The law gave greater protection to protected species living within the preserve, along with the vegetation that makes the area so unique.

At the time the Hackberry fire ignited, several other wildfires were burning in Nevada, Arizona and California, which meant resources, particularly the number of available firefighters, were spread thin.

Lightning strikes caused eight wildfires to ignite on June 22, 2005, according to the Burned Area Emergency Response report. The blazes merged together, creating the Hackberry fire. Winds gusting up to 28 miles per hour spurred the flames, and high humidity allowed them to burn faster and hotter.

"People want to say, we didn't do this or that or couldn't save these houses," Schramm said. "What doesn't get out there is how many homes we did save."

But Lewis was not impressed with the Burned Area Emergency Response team's report.
"There seems to be a lack of review of the fire management itself," Lewis wrote, adding later, "I also find it hard to believe that the NPS did not consult with anyone from San Bernardino County or from the private sector while completing this report."

Walker took the issue of defending homes in the preserve to another level.
"The lightning strikes did not burn us out," said Walker, who had planned to retire to the property. "The restrictions out on the firefighters by the National Park Service burned us out."

Schramm vehemently disputed the contention that some other property owners share with Walker.

"It's coming out of their emotions, and some of those feelings are about the past superintendent, but it's just nonsense," Schramm said.

He added that he was unsure how much the property owners' issues were related to his predecessor, Mary Martin. Some of them had called Martin's actions too liberal toward protecting the environment ahead of man-made property.

"Over time, they developed some problems with the way she managed things," Schramm said.

He added that while he has a different background than Martin, even mentioning that he grew up a hunter, "Mary and I had to follow the same laws and regulations."

Schramm also addressed one other concern mentioned by Lewis and Postmus. During the wildfire, officers relied upon a fire management plan that had not yet been approved.

Technically, Schramm said, the plan was not yet valid at the time of the blaze.

But the plan proved a valuable tool that helped augment the management skills of the officers, he said.

"It was a draft plan," he said. "But it had some of the best information out there."
Still, the county also had complaints about the plan because its firefighters were not consulted. Since then, the county has been able to have its viewpoints considered.