California dead tree ‘emergency’ could fuel wildfires, El Niño floods

By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune

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The Angeles National Forest, top, and other state woodlands have tens of millions of trees killed by the drought. Above, a specialist looks for bark beetles in the San Bernardino National Forest. (Staff File Photos)

Calling it “the worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern history,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this week, asking for swift removal of dried-out trees either through controlled burns or as feed for biomass energy plants.

The four-year drought has already killed 22 million trees in the state and most likely will destroy tens of millions more, according to a dead-tree census performed by the U.S. Forest Service.

In a letter to Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brown appealed for federal dollars and boots on the ground to remove trees before they fuel devastating wildfires, which historically occur during fall and winter months when powerful Santa Ana winds blow.

The increasing number of dead oaks, pines, firs, redwoods and sequoias pose a threat, not just in a fire, but can fall on people and property, Brown wrote. They can also float down as debris in mudslides and floods, two real possibilities if predictions of a strong El Niño this winter are realized.

“Changes to our forests driven by climate change require that federal, state and local governments think creatively and act aggressively,” Brown wrote.

The governor is asking various state agencies, including Caltrans and Cal Fire, to identify the areas where dead trees pose the highest risks. “He is directing state agencies to remove dead and dying trees in those areas,” said Greg Renick, information officer with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Southern Region.

He said the governor is asking the state to provide counties in affected areas with heavy equipment, such as wood chippers. Caltrans can use the wood chips as mulch, according to the proclamation. Brown may use his emergency powers to increase the days allowed for burning tree waste. He may ask the California Public Utilities Commission to fast track new bio-fuel plants using tree waste from impacted areas.

Trees in the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests have been dying due to an extreme lack of precipitation. U.S. Forest Service biologists have identified large swaths of dead trees invaded by native bark beetles, which under normal rainfall are constrained by the defense mechanisms of the trees.

Arborist John Lynch, who works in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, said coastal live oaks, canyon live oaks as well as big cone Douglas fir trees in Mallard Canyon and in the Upper Arroyo Seco north of Pasadena and Eagle Rock are hard hit.

“It is definitely as bad as I have ever seen it,” Lynch said on Monday. “Even if we get rain, there are a lot of trees so stressed that it won’t help them — those trees are just barely holding on.”

Homeowners can save trees by watering slowly at the drip line and placing mulch around the base of trunks.

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