Tree mortality skyrockets in 2016 wildfire season

Tree mortality skyrockets in 2016 wildfire season

26 May 2016

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USA — Despite the rain and snow, California is experiencing unprecedented levels of tree mortality. Fire officials believe the worst is yet to come.

Cal Fire estimates that there are currently more than 29 million dead trees statewide — a jump from the reported 3 million dead trees in 2014 and it expects the number to grow.

“It’s likely that for three to five more years we will continue to see millions of trees die as lack of water and bark beetles kill them,” said Daniel Berlant with Cal Fire.

Berlant said the highest fire risks are in the central valley from Tuolomne to Kern counties, but El Dorado, Calaveras, Placer and Amador counties are transitioning into the worst areas as the fire risk moves north.

“The residents that live in these areas — or even the vacationers that go into these areas that have already been hit — it’s never going to look the same in their lifetime,” said Berlant.

PG&E gave KCRA 3 an exclusive look at the 2016 wildfire numbers from the sky in El Dorado County along the Highway 50 corridor.

“So even while we are thinking this is really bad, I don’t think we have yet to see how bad it is going to become,” said Jeff Mussell, vegetation manager with PG&E. “I don’t think we ever expected the population of mortality to be as high as it is — and added to that — how quickly it is changing.”

Mussell said the trees that survived the 2014 King Fire were weakened from the drought and unable to produce the defense mechanism to fight off bark beetle.

“What these little buggers do is they actually burrow in the hole, like a grain of rice, they burrow in the bark and they will create these galleries all up and down,” said Mussell.

Hundreds of thousands of bark beetles kill the tree and become a potential matchstick along PG&E power lines.

Mussell added tree mortality is growing at a fast pace and estimates that around 140,000 healthy trees surveyed at the beginning of the year will be dead by the end of 2016.

PG&E expects to prune or remove around 1.1 million trees this year to prevent them from growing into power lines. It is also adding additional yearly surveys for the highest fire prone areas.

Auburn resident Bill Mahl had two trees removed by PG&E in one year.

“Oh yeah, there’s a lot of dead trees. Just look around you can see them all,” said Mahl.

Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service are currently conducting aerial surveys for the 2016 tree mortality numbers. Berlant expects it to exceed the current 29 million dead trees in California.

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