Lenore Rutherford, The Union Democrat

A bipartisan bill introduced by California Assembly members Frank Bigelow and Bob Wieckowski could reduce fuel for wildfires by increasing the number of forest thinning projects.

Assembly Bill 350 would increase the diameter of trees that qualify to be cleared under the state's Forest Fire Prevention Exemption law to 28 inches (34 inches in special circumstances).

That's up from the current 18 and 24 inches.

The bill is designed to get landowners to engage in forest thinning projects to reduce the threat and intensity of wildfires, Bigelow and Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said in a joint statement.

Bigelow, R-O'Neals, represents Tuolumne and Calaveras counties in the Fifth Assembly District, which also includes all or parts of heavily forested Placer, El Dorado, Alpine, Amador, Mariposa, Madera and Mono counties.

John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, often at odds with loggers, thinks flexibility is good but that the 30-inch limit is overgenerous.

"Taking the 24, 26 or 28-inch tree may allow a landowner to pay for removing smaller trees that honestly pose fire risks," he said, "but to claim to have to take anything over 30 inches (in diameter) goes beyond that. I feel most of those who believe in conservation would feel that is not only inappropriate, but an abuse of the claim they are trying to reduce fire risk."

Adam Frese, a forester with the Tuolumne-Calaveras unit of Cal Fire, said he believes the bill would make it more economical for operators to get rid of the ladder fuels that are extremely dangerous.

Ladder fuels are things such as grass, brush and very small trees that carry fire from ground level to the tops of bigger trees.

Jim Rosbrook, assistant chief of the Altaville-Melones Fire Protection District, was more skeptical of the bill.

"Supposedly, it's for the purpose of fire prevention," he said. "My thoughts are they should be concerned about the ladder effect of grass and brush and let the trees stand on their own. Even if you have a 100-foot clearance around your house, that doesn't mean you don't have any trees, it just means you clear all the grass and brush around it. Trees don't catch fire by themselves, except in the case of lightning strikes."

Mike Albrecht, of Sonora, a Tuolumne County logger who says he believes in maintaining a sustainable forest for future generations, believes allowing operators to remove some larger trees gives them the funding to remove brush and other ladder fuels.

There is no doubt Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are at high risk for devastating wildfires.

A state insurance organization survey last summer found that the two counties have among the highest percentage of homes at high to extreme risk for wildfires when compared with other parts of the state.

The Insurance Information Network of California survey assessed the wildfire risk for properties county-by-county.

The report found that more than 80 percent of Tuolumne County's 31,244 homes are at high or extreme levels of wildfire danger. In Calaveras County, that number is 66.5 percent of the county's 27,925 homes.

The statewide rate was about 14.8 percent of California homes, and the Central Sierra Nevada counties had among the highest percentages of homes at risk. The only counties with higher percentages of "at risk" homes were Alpine, 86.2 percent, and Mariposa, 81.5 percent.

AB 350 was introduced Feb. 13.