September 14, 2006

Firefighting doubted

Probe of Hackberry tactics requested

George Watson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Winkler's Cabin burned to the ground.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus has asked Rep. Jerry Lewis to request an outside investigation into the suppression tactics of the National Park Service during a 2005 wildfire in the High Desert.

In a Sept. 5 letter, Postmus wrote that the Park Service's decision to use an unapproved fire-management plan during the Hackberry Complex Fire must be examined.

The Park Service has already conducted a review of its own and concluded it did nothing wrong in battling the blaze.

"The Park Service letter to you seems to absolve the Service and its employees of any inappropriate action," wrote Postmus. "However, given the continuing nature of the controversy, I believe that a review external to the Park Service might be appropriate."

Several residents believe their homes burned because of the Park Service's fire-management decisions. They have said the Park Service did not use enough bulldozers and planes and refused residents' offers to let their firefighters tap into local wells, instead choosing to refill water supplies from locations farther away.

Postmus suggested the Department of the Interior's Inspector General's Office could handle the investigation.

Lewis' spokesman, Jim Specht, said the Redlands Republican, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has been tied up trying to finalize bills for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

"Once he gets those done and has a chance to review the information, I am sure he will have a conversation with Mr. Postmus about it," Specht said.

Last March, Lewis expressed his disappointment with the Park Service's handling of the Hackberry Complex Fire, which torched 70,000 acres of desert covered with pinyon pine, juniper and sage brush. Lewis wrote that he believed too many houses burned and questioned whether the Park Service's responsiveness may have been the cause.

Dennis Schramm, the supervisor of the Mojave National Preserve, which is where the fire occurred, has called the blaze "an event that has not been seen before in this part of the desert."

Schramm placed blame on hot, dry weather coupled with an abundance of fuel meaning trees and brush that were ready to explode. He also has said the Park Service saved many homes from burning.

Brad Mitzelfelt, Postmus' chief of staff, agreed with Schramm that the conditions were ripe for an uncontrollable fire.

"We believe they could have had more water available and that they could have used heavy equipment to help fight this fire, but at the end of the day that's no guarantee the outcome of this disastrous fire would have been any different," Mitzelfelt wrote in an e-mail.

Still, Mitzelfelt said, the county questions whether the Park Service properly implemented its fire plan once the Hackberry fire ignited.

"This is one of the things we hope the (inspector general) can determine," Mitzelfelt wrote. "At the time the Hackberry fires started, the county had not been notified that the plan had been adopted and in fact hadn't heard any response to its input from the scoping for the Fire Management Plan."