Tree Mortality and Our 12-Month Fire Season
It’s no secret that our Sierra Nevada forests are in big trouble. We have more than 66 million dead trees in the mountains and foothills of California—killed by a prolonged drought and an onslaught of bark beetles. The images from the Southern and Central Sierra are frightening. Acres and acres of pine trees are orange and brown, dead, dying, dry. And the bark beetles are moving north. As they kill entire stands of trees they move on to new sections of forest.
We are in our fifth consecutive drought year. The warmer winters and lack of adequate rainfall are all factors in bark beetle population explosions. The normal lifecycle for bark beetles is two or three hatches per year. The warmer weather we’ve had in the past several years has allowed four or five hatches, resulting in millions more beetles attacking the trees.
This slow but steady northward expansion shows no sign of stopping. And it leaves us vulnerable to a faster-moving calamity; the danger of wildfires. If our forests do catch fire, all the dead trees could fuel a fire that burns faster and hotter and is more devastating to people and property. Not to mention, all the smoke and soot from a wildfire adds tons and tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
“Fire season” is already year-round in California and even in Fall and Winter we see destructive wildfires. Eight out of the top ten most destructive wildfires in California history occurred in September, October or November. The huge number of dead and dying trees in our forests makes it even more imperative that we consider the potential for destructive wildfires in our forest management practices. We need to encourage proper management of our forests rather than exhaust state and federal dollars fighting larger and longer fires.
Thankfully, California has allocated $77 million in the budget that can be used for tree mortality and healthy forest management. There are also more federal dollars available. CalFire and the California Office of Emergency Services are coordinating closely with the US Forest Service, local governments and a host of other partners to get the most bang for the buck as we begin removing trees that pose an immediate hazard to people and critical infrastructure.
There’s no way we’ll be able to remove all of the trees that are already dead and dying. Sixty-six million dead trees is a really hard concept to comprehend, and the number is growing. The bottom line is, there are no simple answers to tree mortality. We have to safely reduce the number of hazardous trees, help homeowners remove dead trees from their property, figure out what to do with tons and tons of dead wood, and do what we can to reduce the fire danger posed by all that dead and dry fuel in the forest.
This issue will be with us long into the future. Bark beetles and tree mortality do not stop at county lines. Fortunately, the foundation has been laid for federal, state and local government cooperation. It is through those partnerships that we can have the most impact as we search for effective ways to manage our forests through these very challenging times.