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Mendocino County fire authorities have added their voices to a heated debate over a timber-management practice that poisons unwanted hardwood trees and leaves them to decompose in forests, creating what some say is an increased fire hazard in a state already plagued by tinder-dry conditions in its fourth year of drought.

Fire officials are calling for tighter limits on the decades-old practice, which uses chemicals in place of more expensive mechanical means to eliminate the trees. The private timberland company at the center of the debate — Mendocino Redwood Co., which owns more than 10 percent of Mendocino County’s land mass — says the practice is safe, but local fire officials say it effectively adds fuel to an already flammable situation.

“This is a life safety concern,” said Albion Little River Fire Protection District Chief Ted Williams, whose 44-square-mile coastal fire district includes and is surrounded by commercial timberland.

He and his board of directors are contemplating an ordinance that would limit how long poisoned trees can be allowed to stand on land in the district’s jurisdiction.

The proposed ordinance “says these trees are a nuisance,” Williams said.

The fire district also is asking the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors to review the practice and consider countywide regulations for the “hack and squirt” operations, so named because they include cutting a tree, then injecting an herbicide into the wound. The treatment begins killing the trees within months, but it takes years for them to decompose.

Such operations appear to be largely unregulated because Cal Fire considers tanoak to be “a kind of weed,” Williams said.

“Unchecked by public oversight, it poses life safety risks to both residents and firefighters,” he wrote in a letter to supervisors.

The supervisors are scheduled to discuss the issue Tuesday afternoon at their regular meeting.

Timberland managers and the Cal Fire officials who regulate their harvest operations said they’re listening and responding to citizen concerns but have downplayed the fire danger, saying the dead trees may increase forest flammability initially, but the danger dissipates over several years and eventually — after about a decade — leaves forests at less risk from large wildfires.

The volume of flammable material in a forest is just one of many factors — including topography and weather — that can contribute to forest fires, Cal Fire officials said.

“It’s a question with a lot of variables,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Shawn Zimmermaker said. “It could actually make for less fires.”

Mike Jani, president and chief forester of Mendocino Redwood Co., contends the dead trees aren’t the dire fire risk Williams says they are.

He admits they are more flammable for at least the first year after treatment, when their leaves dry out but remain on the tree. But the risk declines when the leaves fall, which reduces the chance for fires to travel from treetop to treetop, Jani said.

He said the herbicide operations are a critical part of the company’s efforts to restore forests transformed by overlogging to their original conifer-dominated states.

“We’re trying to get it back,” Jani said.

Killing the tanoaks and other brush gives the commercially valuable conifers — redwoods and Douglas fir — a chance to compete for light and water, said Jani, who heads both the Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood companies, which own about 222,000 acres of forest in Mendocino County, 7,000 acres in Sonoma County and more than 209,000 acres in Humboldt County.

Both companies were created — the first in 1998, the second in 2008 — to purchase and manage timberland that had been heavily cut under previous ownerships. The Fisher family, founders of the Gap clothing stores, are majority stakeholders in the companies.

The purchases were made with a promise to rehabilitate and log the land in an environmentally sound manner. The company since has been lauded for its management style by some environmentalists, but there are many people in Mendocino County who believe the company could do better.

Jani said the company has and continues to manage the land in ways that will improve it over time. And that includes thinning out the tanoaks that cropped up where conifers once stood and are preventing the conifers from regenerating.

The disputed practice has been utilized by timber companies for decades and Mendocino Redwood Co. has practiced the technique since 2001, Jani said. It has annually been treating tanoaks interspersed across about 5,000 acres for the past several years , he said.

“This isn’t new,” Jani said.

Area residents had long complained about the operations to the timber company and Cal Fire. The complaints surged in 2012 after the company treated vast sections of forestland within view of some homes and public roads in the Albion and Comptche areas.

“We saw huge swaths of the forest turning brown,” said Mike Kalantarian, who has lived on a forested ridgetop in Rancho Navarro for 18 years. He and his wife joined the growing list of county residents who object to the procedure and created a website where they’ve collected an estimated 1,700 signatures in opposition of the use of toxic herbicides and the killing of oaks, which they note are a valuable food source for wildlife.

The company has used 4,920 gallons of herbicide to treat trees and brush scattered across 24,242 acres since March 2012, according to the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which registers herbicide use. The number of trees poisoned is not tracked but Williams has estimated it at about 1 million a year, based on the amount of herbicides used.

The debate heated up further this year after Williams and his board began raising concerns about the fire danger in dried-out forests.

Cal Fire too has expressed concern over volatile forest conditions. In anticipation of a severe fire season, the state agency has increased its staffing and is warning residents to clear debris from around their homes, something Williams finds ironic in light of what he sees as Cal Fire’s passive reaction to the added fuel load from chemically killed trees.

Williams’ board would like the dead trees removed but has been told it’s too expensive and that it’s better for the environment to leave decayed material on the ground.

Williams suggests that Mendocino Redwood Co. could save money by removing the trees at the same time they’re harvesting conifers for commercial uses.

He said he will be happy if future studies show the practice does not increase forest fire hazards, but his experience as a firefighter and other studies tell him otherwise.

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors is expected to take up the issue at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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