updated 10/30/2003 2:24:03 PM ET 2003-10-30T19:24:03

Just as the Southern California wildfires were beginning late last week, the Bush administration quietly turned down a six-month-old emergency request by Gov. Gray Davis for help in removing dead and dying trees in the same forests now being consumed by flame.

IN APRIL, Davis asked for a federal emergency declaration in three counties where bark beetle infestation had left thousands of acres of dense woodland vulnerable to fire.

If approved, the presidential proclamation would have paved the way for millions of dollars in federal support for clearing dead trees in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“We made the request in the hope of making a horrific situation less serious and we were turned down,” Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which handled the Davis request, said it decided against the proposal largely because Congress had already agreed to provide $43 million this year for fighting the beetle infestation in Southern California, and the sum seemed appropriate at the time.

But state officials say the money represented only a small part of the $450 million needed to clear the forest of dead trees and eliminate the fire danger.

State officials have estimated the fires — which have burned about 2,600 homes, blackened about 730,000 acres and killed at least 20 people — could take a $2 billion toll on California’s economy.

YEARS OF DROUGHT

After four years of drought, nearly a half-million acres of dense woodland in Southern California had become infested by the bark beetle. Local and state officials had warned that the forests were a disaster waiting to happen, and some have criticized Davis for not moving more aggressively to combat the problem.

In an April 16 letter to FEMA officials, Davis said, “Supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health and foster safety.”

A response from the letter has still not been received by the governor’s office, Maviglio said. The state was notified by the office of Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., last Friday that the request had been turned down.

The FEMA denial came a few days after the first of the major fires began to rage out of control in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

“I don’t want to second-guess that decision,” said Chad Kolton, FEMA spokesman. “They were asking for federal resources and federal resources were being provided.”

ENOUGH BLAME FOR ALL?

State Sen. Jim Brulte, a Republican whose district includes big parts of the fire-ravaged area, said that it was not fair for Davis to suggest the federal government has not been doing enough.

“The Davis administration twice rejected San Bernardino’s request for a state of emergency to be declared and we had to beat up on them to finally get it,” he said. “The fact is that everyone has been late to this party.”

The beetles, which are native to California, drill into bark, seeking the moist inner layers to feed on. Typically, they can kill only drought-weakened trees.

Healthy trees are able to expel the invaders by flooding the infestation with resin, which drought-stressed trees can’t produce. Once the infestation has begun the trees are starved of water and nutrients and quickly die.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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