Of­fi­cials tally 18 mil­lion dead trees — a lower toll

Ex­perts say rain re­duced losses, but threats still lie ahead

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ale­jan­dra Reyes-Ve­larde

An­other 18 mil­lion trees in Cal­i­for­nia died over the last year, a grim toll that none­the­less of­fi­cials see as a sign the epic for­est die-off in the state’s moun­tains is fi­nally slow­ing.

A study by state and fed­eral for­est of­fi­cials re­leased Mon­day noted that the 18 mil­lion dead trees since the fall of 2017 marks a ma­jor de­cline from the last study in 2016, which de­tected 62 mil­lion dead trees, and 2017, which found 27 mil­lion dead trees.

Of­fi­cials cred­ited the shift to more rain, which has less­ened drought con­di­tions in Cal­i­for­nia forests and strength­ened trees’ abil­ity to fight off bee­tles.

In the last few years, Cal­i­for­nia has seen the most dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires in its his­tory as a re­sult of the drought and bee­tle epi­demic that, com­bined, kill off trees and gen­er­ate more fuel for fires.

The bee­tles had been rapidly killing trees in the 4,500- to 6,000-foot el­e­va­tion band of the cen­tral and south­ern Sierra range. It could take cen­turies for the trees to re­pop­u­late, if they ever do.

Bee­tle-rav­aged trees on ei­ther side of the Merced

River con­trib­uted to the dam­age done by the Fer­gu­son fire last year, and the dead trees have made for hot­ter, more in­tense fires that have re­sulted in the dev­as­ta­tion of the Thomas, Men­do­cino Com­plex and Camp fires.

Fire “moves very fast through dead nee­dles, and dead trees pro­duce a lot of dead nee­dles,” said Mike Beasley, a fire be­hav­ior an­a­lyst for the U.S. For­est Ser­vice. “The dead pine nee­dles, no mat­ter where they end up, whether they’re still in the tree or draped in some old, deca­dent brush, or lay­ing on the ground, they con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to rapid rates of spread.”

In all, more than 147 mil­lion trees have died across 9.7 mil­lion acres of fed­eral, state, lo­cal and pri­vate land in the state since the drought be­gan in 2010, ac­cord­ing the study.

The slower tree mor­tal­ity rate is en­cour­ag­ing, but it’s no cause to breathe a sigh of re­lief yet, ex­perts say.

“Eigh­teen mil­lion trees is still a lot of trees,” said Randy Moore, re­gional forester for the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

To make a dif­fer­ence in the forests’ den­sity, 500,000 acres of na­tional for­est land would have to be treated an­nu­ally. To come up with that num­ber, ex­perts cal­cu­late how much for­est man­age­ment it would take to make the for­est re­silient enough to do min­i­mal dam­age ev­ery time for­est fires re­cur, about ev­ery 12 years, Moore said.

Since 2016, fed­eral, state, and lo­cal agen­cies have felled 1.5 mil­lion dead trees in ar­eas that pose the great­est risk to life and prop­erty, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, the state’s For­est Man­age­ment Task Force and the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. The dev­as­ta­tion of re­cent fires has put the pres­sure on, urg­ing agen­cies to work to­gether on for­est man­age­ment.

As a re­sult, this past year of­fi­cials got closer to the 500,000-acre an­nual goal than ever be­fore, treat­ing about 300,000 acres of na­tional for­est land, Moore said.

“The com­mu­nity has come to­gether,” he said. “It doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s fed­eral, pri­vate or state. It’s been work­ing re­ally well in a way I’ve not seen it in the past.”

Thom Porter, di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, said it helps that the bee­tle pop­u­la­tion has been dy­ing off too.

“This has been an ab­so­lute epi­demic in the south­ern Sier­ras to the point where there are no trees left,” he said. “They ran out of trees to eat.”

In other ar­eas, tree health is im­prov­ing enough that they’re able to ward off the bee­tles, he said.

But Porter said peo­ple should make no mis­take: The next wild­fire sea­son will prob­a­bly be just as dev­as­tat­ing as the last de­spite the im­prove­ment in for­est health. There may be fewer dead trees, but they’re adding to the ex­ist­ing dead trees that will be around for decades or un­til they’re burned up or re­moved.

The lower tree mor­tal­ity “does not change that at all,” he said.

“Re­gard­less of rain or shine, we’re go­ing to have large and dam­ag­ing fires in Cal­i­for­nia,” he said.

So far, for­est man­age­ment has been fo­cused on ar­eas near peo­ple— along roads, trails, and camp­grounds, Moore said. Deep for­est land has re­mained largely un­touched.

Gov. Gavin New­som has called for $1 bil­lion to­ward a for­est man­age­ment plan over the next five years. That’s wel­come news, and it would en­sure the state has enough money to clear out forests, rather than spend on the purely re­ac­tive ap­proach of fight­ing fires, Porter said.

“So, we are want­ing to con­tinue to in­vest in fuel re­duc­tion work that will pro­tect the ci­ti­zens of Cal­i­for­nia, the for­est ecosys­tem and wa­ter­sheds of Cal­i­for­nia,” he said. “But it’s go­ing to take many many years for us to get to where we need to be re­lat­ing to for­est health.”

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

DEAD TREES are sur­rounded by smoke at Yosemite Na­tional Park dur­ing the Fer­gu­son fire last year.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

BI­OL­O­GIST ROSI DAGIT in­spects a wil­low tree aff licted by in­va­sive bee­tles at Topanga Creek in 2017.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

RYAN SALLADAY, left, and fire spe­cial­ist Max Moritz take sam­ples of a tree in Los Padres Na­tional For­est.

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