This Winter Has Not Erased Sierra Tree Deaths
Tree mortality has not gone away with the wet winter we’ve had and neither have the dangers it presents for many California counties. We still have millions of dead trees and some of them still pose direct hazards to homes and infrastructure. The potential for a wildfire in those stands of dead trees is enough to keep me awake at night. California has many issues to deal with, but this one should stay near the top of the list. Please keep reading to find more about what’s happening in my home county of Amador, and also to hear from Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann, Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley, and Tuolumne County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt.
Amador County is fortunate to have important lessons learned from other counties that had significant tree mortality years before the issue really hit our county. We hired a County Coordinator and a Registered Professional Forester to administer projects. Following dead and dying tree removal by PG&E, the county selected a firm to perform tree removal in county rights-of-way. We have four initial projects that are either in planning phases or with actual tree removal in process.
Amador does not have a county yard for collecting debris. All trees are taken to remote locations for processing. Local residents with dead trees on their property are struggling to find economical means of removing trees. Even with private donations and some grant assistance, the economic burden is too much for most people. The California Disaster Assistance grants awarded to the county can’t be used to assist private property owners where county roads are not impacted. This is the biggest issue in the county; how to help private citizens deal with dead trees on their property.
What is to come in the future? Thousands of acres in Amador County have standing dead trees that are not accessible for removal. Our concern is the threat of catastrophic wildfire. The dry fuel will burn extremely hot and be a huge safety risk for our residents and firefighters. Dollars are limited and FEMA does not recognize millions of standing dead trees as a disaster – there must be a catastrophic fire to earn that label!
The tree mortality issue will last years with more trees showing signs of mortality at every new assessment. Even with the significant precipitation and snow received this winter, we have a long way to go.
We have had a much wetter and colder winter in Mariposa County this year than the past five. After averaging only 2 percent of average snow water content in 2015, we are currently sitting on 202 percent! It may have knocked the bark beetles back a little bit, but unfortunately, the damage here is already done.
The incidence of tree mortality due to drought and insect infestations in Mariposa County has been increasing at alarming rates. Estimates based on U.S. Forest Service aerial mapping and CalFire data indicate that more than 70 percent of Ponderosa Pines (the predominant species above 3000 feet) in the County are already dead. The proportion of dead and dying trees will increase regardless of future precipitation levels. Further projections suggest that 465,000 acres are now or will eventually be dramatically affected by tree mortality in Mariposa County. That’s about half of the County’s total area, but most of the forested land.
A concentration of dead and dying trees creates an increased risk of wildfire. Many of the standing trees will fall, creating further threats to public safety. Although the County has sought to be as proactive as possible in its management of the risks associated with tree mortality but, County resources alone cannot begin to address a disaster of this magnitude.
A recent count identified over 12,000 standing dead trees directly threatening county assets. At as much as $1000 per tree, the impact on county finances is dramatic. Our Board recently approved extending the local state of emergency for tree mortality. Hopefully, that will keep some additional state and federal funds flowing to help.
Government surveys conducted in 2016 of tree mortality affected areas established that more than 12 million dead and dying hazard trees were located within Tulare County. That number is expected to grow when California’s forests are re-surveyed again this year. Tulare County is focused on removing dead trees that threaten to fall across our county roads and that threaten public infrastructure, but this is a daunting task both logistically and fiscally.
Homeowners with mountain properties that are threatened by hazard trees are challenged with the loss of their homeowner’s insurance unless hazard trees are removed. This affects more than their public safety, it affects their home values – because if you cannot insure a home, you may either have your mortgage called by your lender or find you cannot easily buy or sell property.
Tulare County faces unique challenges when addressing tree mortality – most of our forested areas lie within the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Forest supervisors are loathe to allow trees to be removed from the Monument.
The inundation of California’s High Sierra areas with dead and dying trees has vast impacts beyond Tulare County, and impacts far beyond the heightened risks of runaway wildfire. There are severe impacts to our state and nation’s air quality and present and future water supply. We need the state of California to demand that the federal government initiate active forest management practices immediately in order to reduce these future impacts. This problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon. We will be dealing with dead trees for decades.
Tuolumne County continues to face an almost insurmountable problem regarding dead and dying trees that present a risk to the health and safety of our community. Aside from the damage caused by trees falling over roads, houses, and critical infrastructure, there exists an increased fire risk with over-abundance of dead, dry fuel standing and on the ground. There has been a great concerted effort to remove hazard trees, but trees continue to die and we will need to stay coordinated with local resources and community information sharing. We are making good progress but we are not yet ahead of the mortality.
Homeowners in Tuolumne County are frightened. Many have large dead trees threatening their homes, and each gust of wind induces panic that these trees may come crashing through their roofs. Homeowners feel like they are chasing their tails trying to keep up with meeting the defensible space requirements while trees are being felled left and right across their property with little assistance to clean up the mess. It’s not just unsightly, it represents a serious looming threat which will continue as more trees die.
Although we received near record amounts of water this winter, the trees are still feeling the effects of overly-dense stands and five years without adequate water. It has been predicted that we will see a small slow-down of mortality this summer but not enough to allow tree removal efforts to catch up to the number of trees that have already died. There is no reliable model for what we are dealing with.
One of the more pressing issues we are working to resolve are logs and limbs left behind by PG&E’s tree removal efforts. PG&E has done an amazing job felling thousands of trees in the County, however the debris left behind is becoming overwhelming for residents, road crews, and emergency personnel. Additional resources that can operate in an efficient and safe manner will be necessary as we move forward.