Sitting at the incident commander table for the Sept. 11 Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting are (from left) Matt Ahearn, acting division chief for the U.S. Forest Service’s San Jacinto Ranger District, Michelle Kelly of Riverside County Emergency Management Department, Gregg Bratcher, forester division chief for Riverside County Fire Department, and Dan Olsen, Riverside County Fire Department battalion chief on the mountain.     Photo by JP Crumrine

Grants available to help remove dead and dying trees

The Sept. 11, Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST) meeting was sparsely attended. No law enforcement officials and only a few fire managers were present. Those in attendance discussed current and prospective fire protection projects and forest health.


Kat Wilson, executive director of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council (MCFSC), described the two major grants it obtained for tree removal on the hill.

Cal Fire awarded the MCFSC $600,000 a year ago for removal of dead or dying trees. Already 87 properties have been assisted with abatement and tree removal, she told the group.

The second grant was awarded in December. The California Fire Safe Council awarded our local FSC $200,000 to help with fuel reduction projects such as community chipper programs, fuel breaks, and roadside and defensible space projects. Thus far, the MCFSC has worked on seven properties.

Both grant programs have cost-share requirements for the property owners. More than 200 acres have been improved and 165 trees removed with these funds, according to Wilson. 

The MCFSC workload is expanding and a third field inspector maybe added, Wilson said. Pete Coy is the current project manager and Courtney Locke was hired earlier this summer. 

Riverside County also has grant funds to remove dead and dying trees, which were infested by either the bark beetle or the gold-spotted oak borer (GSOB). 

So far, the funds have not been used, but Gregg Bratcher, Riverside County Fire Department (RCFD) division chief forester, said the county would begin once a licensed tree operator was selected.

Property owners will be required to pay a quarter of the project’s cost, he added.

Patrick Keplinger of Rep. Raul Ruiz’s, D-Palm Desert, office alerted the agencies to some emergency grants from the Department of Commerce. These funds are limited to businesses, nonprofit groups or public agencies that incurred damage from the February storm.

Commerce’s Economic Development Agency announced application procedures for the Disaster Supplemental Funding Opportunity. Subject to the availability of funds, this investment assistance will help communities and regions devise and implement long-term economic recovery strategies through a variety of non-construction and construction projects. It is for areas who suffered from a variety of natural disasters including “floods occurring in calendar year 2019.”

Forest Health

“I’ve seen no extra damage [to local trees] from bark beetles beyond what we would normally expect,” Bratcher commented. “But the GSOB is alive and well.”

This summer it was found in the San Bernardino Mountains, so it is expanding its habitat. Call the local GSOB hotline at 951-659-8328 to request an inspection.

Bratcher is requesting that volunteers form inspection teams. The MCFSC organized several teams a few years ago, but interest dwindled. Consequently, he is relying mostly on calls to the hotline to help identify oaks damaged from GSOB infestations.

“Its very helpful to have local [residents] conduct inspections. They are familiar with the area,” Bratcher said. “I’d like to keep them going and we can provide training.”

Dan Olsen, RCFD battalion chief for the mountain, confirmed that staff at Station 23 (Pine Cove) is currently conducting property abatement inspections. If an individual wants to know the status of a property, they can contact captains Kathy Garver and Milford Ferguson at the station, he added.

Matt Ahearn, acting U.S. Forest Service division chief for the San Jacinto Ranger District, said his agency is staffed and ready for any possible fall fires. The next few days may see an elevation in fire weather, but not red flag warnings, he added.

“The live fuel moisture is higher than normal but dropping. Near the Cranston Ranger Station, it is still 55%,” he noted.

RCFD is continuing work on the Red Hill fuel break and is preparing to begin work on the Point of Rocks project, Bratcher said. The latter will extend from Thousand Trails in Pine Cove to the water tank in Fern Valley at the top of Chipmunk Drive.

Ken Kietzer, senior environmental scientist at California State Parks in Perris, said that more GSOB damaged trees have been found in local campgrounds and have been removed.


In other work related to safety on the hill, Shane Massoud, maintenance public information officer for Caltrans, confirmed that the work on highways 74 and 243 are progressing without any interruptions. He still expects the use of pilot cars on Highway 74 will become unnecessary by late September or early October.

Some work will continue, but traffic can be managed with the use of flagmen at specific sites.

The repaving of Highway 243 from Banning to Lake Fulmor has begun. Winter is likely to interrupt the work and it will be completed in the spring of 2020, he said.