Warnings were the highlight of the December Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting. With help from the diminishing rain in the past several years, bark beetle populations are resurging and beginning to kill more pines on the Hill. As more lumber needs to be ground, the grinding station is seeking a larger and more secure water source to avoid possible fires at the site.

Dave Simmons, Southern California Edison’s manager of the bark beetle project, reported an alarming increase in bark beetle-infested trees. His crews began noticing more dead and dying trees this summer and it is occurring throughout Edison’s mountain service areas — Idyllwild, Wrightwood, Arrowhead and others.

For the past several years, Edison has had to remove about 600 trees annually, according to Simmons.

“But this year, we already have taken down 1,200 trees and could approach 1,500 trees by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re looking for a very busy 2014. We haven’t seen this kind of increase since the project’s inception.”

For the past several years, the number of dead and dying trees had declined substantially. So much so, Edison was considering disbanding the project.

“Six months ago, we weren’t sure of our direction. But we’re not going anywhere now. We’re going to ramp up and with extra crews,” Simmons stated and he expects to see a much greater effect in the spring.

Before finishing, he complimented the Riverside County MAST effort that continued to obtain the monthly county emergency declarations from the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, even though San Bernardino County had declared the bark beetle infestation over several years ago and disbanded political support.

In addition to the burgeoning bark-beetle threat, Gregg Bratcher, division chief forester for the Riverside County Fire Department, announced that 28 trees now have been identified as being infected with Goldspotted oak borer.

At the grinding station off of Highway 243 south of Idyllwild, manager Doug McKellar reported he has contacted the U.S. Forest Service about access to some spring water near the site. He has become concerned about the heat of the equipment possibly igniting a fire that could spread.

While he is required to maintain a supply of water, all of it must be hauled to the site. He is concerned about the amount of sawdust exposed to the heat of the equipment. “With the wind and low humidity, it’s a fire threat,” McKellar said.

While exploring the area, he has found a vertical well above the grinding site and has contacted the Forest Service about gaining access to this water source. Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council President Mike Esnard supported McKellar’s idea.

Cal Fire has recently been working on two fuel reduction projects, Bratcher reported. One is below Astrocamp and the second is in the Upper Dry Creek area. Both are about 20 acres. This follows completing a 30-acre project in the Stone Creek area.

Greg Ross has retired from the Forest Service, Battalion Chief Chris Fogle shared with the group. The winter fuels program has begun with some burning of slash piles near Lawler Lodge. Work will begin on the South Ridge and Strawberry and West Ridge fuelbreaks. Residents may see some burning in the spring, said Fogle.

A larger broadcast burn, affecting about 800 acres in Garner Valley, may also occur if weather is conducive.

FSC is organizing the effort to revise the current Community Wildfire Protection Plan, Esnard announced. “MAST put a lot of time and energy in the original plan and it’s time to do another,” he said. He hopes to begin work in January.

J.P. Crumrine can be reached at [email protected]