- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

CRESTLINE, Calif. (AP) — Ron Albright wonders what he would do if a wildfire threatened his home today like one did a couple of years ago.

Back then, he and his wife were able to flee the burning San Bernardino Mountains by taking a fire access road. Granted, it was dusty and bumpy, but at least it wasn’t in gridlock like the paved roads hopelessly clogged with his retreating neighbors.

Now, though, taking that less-traveled road wouldn’t be an option because it is closed for repairs. Powerful winter storms damaged more than 2,000 miles of fire access roads used to protect 2.3 million acres of forests in Southern California.

“We’re vulnerable now more than ever,” said Mr. Albright, 58, who has lived in the mountains for 30 years and twice fled approaching flames. “For those who live up here, those roads are our Plan B.”

The winter storms dropped 90 inches of rain in some mountain areas, sending tons of dirt and boulders cascading down hillsides. Roads were turned into rushing rivers of debris that ripped drainage pipes from the ground and left them crumpled.

The U.S. Forest Service is rushing to make repairs, but that is little consolation to both officials and the public because this could be one of the worst fire seasons in memory.

The wet weather also spawned teeming vegetation that is turning into kindling under triple-digit summer temperatures. Thousands of trees killed by an infestation of bark beetles are ready to burn.

“Given all of the rain, it’s the worst I’ve seen in 35 years,” said Alan Edler, a Forest Service civil engineering technician in the Angeles National Forest. “This year, the road repairs are extreme.”

In May, President Bush signed an emergency funding bill allocating about $25 million to fix roads in Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests.

“If there is a serious fire this summer, crews simply won’t be able to reach vast tracts of land, and entire forests could go up in smoke,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said while announcing allocation of the federal money.

“This funding is urgently needed to fix the roads, protect communities and save lives,” she said.

The Forest Service had hoped to finish the work before the start of fire season in early June. But with Congress slower than expected in providing the money, some of the repairs might not be finished until October.

“Every roadway that we have available to us is extremely important,” said Tracey Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. “We’ll just have to deal with it.”

So far this summer, two small fires have rattled nerves in the San Bernardino Mountains. A 100-acre blaze in early July forced the evacuation of 1,200 children from youth camps.

The fears are fanned by memories of 2003. The fire that threatened Mr. Albright’s home was one of 15 wildfires that killed 24 persons, destroyed more than 3,600 homes and blackened at least 750,000 acres throughout Southern California.

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