As the mercury continues to rise in thermometers across the country, California once again finds itself in the national headlines.
A July 1 article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed California’s drought-driven epidemic of dead trees that has resulted in a crisis affecting towns from Central California all the way up to Northern California: As government agencies and private citizens clear trees that could cause wildfires, they’re ending up with masses of wood that nobody knows what to do with.
The San Francisco Chronicle article describes scenes where “turnouts along rural highways are becoming way stations for timber, and counties are opening makeshift stacking yards. Often, fallen trees are simply left on the forest floor… or they remain sprawled across people’s yards. Signs for ‘free firewood’ have become as ubiquitous in many mountain areas as the buzz of chain saws.”
This is a problem for countless reasons. The most obvious reason is that piles of dead wood are unsafe during California’s fire season. (The article acknowledges this is better than leaving vast stands of dead trees that could feed a wildfire inferno.) Officials hope to remove the debris quickly, but in areas like lumberjack-themed tourist towns in Mariposa County, the newspaper explains, the economy no longer supports a viable timber trade.
As we’ve previously written about in Tree Services, drought conditions in California have wreaked havoc on the state’s trees and tree care companies. According to recent estimates by the U.S. Forest Service, at least 66 million trees have died in California since 2010, more than a third within the past year. These extreme statistics are a result of five years of drought that has deprived forests of water and allowed insects such as bark beetles to take advantage of the trees’ weakened condition.
“We’re finding these trees are extremely dry, and they’re deteriorating much faster,” Steve Brink, a vice president of the California Forestry Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The newspaper reported that both California and federal forestry officials have launched a large-scale effort to remove trees closest to roads and communities where the threat of fire spreading is greatest. More than 200,000 trees have come down in the effort to clear as much dry fuel as possible before the fire season peaks this month and into September.
This is a worthy effort that needs all the help it can get.
How serious are these drought conditions? To the people of California, it doesn’t get any more serious. Media reports have painted a picture of so many trees dying during the years of this historic drought that some cities have resorted to delivering truckloads of water, in an effort to save them. For example, in Palo Alto last year, groundwater was pumped out during basement excavations and then collected in 2,700-gallon water trucks used to irrigate trees.
Meanwhile, the largest stands of current dead forest, most of which are Ponderosa pine, are being cut down and trucked to some of the 25 mills that remain from California’s once-booming logging trade, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Most of these facilities, though, are already inundated with salvaged wood from past wildfires.
The California state government has made $31.5 million available to counties under Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of an emergency last October, caused by dying trees. Since the financing requires a 25 percent match, though, only so much has been done, the newspaper reported. “When we’re talking about removing the number of hazardous trees that we have in our areas, we’re looking at millions of dollars,” Mariposa County Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Most counties don’t have that much money lying around.”
In places like the Ponderosa Basin (Central California), as much as 90 percent of trees are dead. The county’s Office of Emergency Services estimates that around 500,000 trees are a direct threat to people or property, and according to the newspaper, only about 23,000 have been removed.
“Until people come up here and drive around, it’s hard to wrap your head around this,” Don Florence, a planner in the (Mariposa County) Office of Emergency Services, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You couldn’t have a worse standing hazard.”