Jeff Jardine

Dead trees everywhere means Sierra, foothills bracing for worst

The view from the hilltop of Dwight and Sonja Perry’s property in Greeley Hill, seen May 25, 2016, has changed dramatically over the past couple of years as the drought progressed, the Japanese bark beetle got a foothold and the tree die-off began.
The view from the hilltop of Dwight and Sonja Perry’s property in Greeley Hill, seen May 25, 2016, has changed dramatically over the past couple of years as the drought progressed, the Japanese bark beetle got a foothold and the tree die-off began. Dwight Perry

Retired Modestans Dwight and Sonja Perry once enjoyed a beautiful panorama from their hilltop vacation property on Moose Ridge near Greeley Hill.

“The view was just gorgeous,” she said.

With emphasis on “was.” And now?

“The view is about 65 to 70 percent dead trees,” she said. By that, she means the ones still standing, though many probably won’t be for long. They’ve removed 18 sugar pines from their property and will need to take down at least eight more to keep their small outbuildings safe should fire come their way. Other property owners around them are doing the same, or will. There’s simply too much at stake not to.

“This is a bomb,” Dwight Perry said. “One careless cigarette thrown out and everything will blow.”

Or one well-placed lightning strike, or anything else that might set their world away from home on fire.

Five years of drought and its coattail-riding companion, the bark beetle, literally sucked the sap out of trees, allowed the beetle to zombie-ize the trees into The Standing Dead and have wreaked devastation upon the southern Sierra forests from the El Dorado to the Sequoia. Dead trees. Lots of dead trees. About 66 million of them, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s estimates revised a couple of weeks ago.

The Sierra endured tree die-offs in the 1970s and the 1980s but never – make that capital NEVER – anything like this. The Rim Fire burned more than 150,000 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013 and 257,314 acres overall. But as bad as conditions were for that fire, they are worse in some forest areas now. Should stands of dead trees catch fire, they would burn hotter and faster than most of what the Rim claimed.

The Forest Service imposed campfire and other restrictions on the “high hazard” areas of the Stanislaus National Forest in time for the July 4 holiday weekend, limiting campfires, barbecuing, welding and other uses of flame outside of prescribed areas.

The further south you go, the worse the tree die-off gets, said Rob Laeng, acting forest fire manager for the Stanislaus National Forest. While the government committed millions of dollars to downing the dead trees, most of that in the Sierra went to the Sierra and Sequoia forests, he said.

“Most of the money has gone to the south,” he said. “The two southern forests (Sierra and Sequoia) need it more.”

Stanislaus National Forest officials are trying to work within their existing budget to eradicate the dead trees, and they rely in part on area residents to obtain permits to cut down trees for winter firewood. But conditions have been so dry and harsh that some days locals aren’t allowed to cut. One spark could ignite a blaze no shovel or bucket of water can stop. Commercial loggers can work, but they must have water tanks and bulldozers at the site to knock down a fire before it gets ugly.

Forest officials have prioritized the areas where dead tree removal needs to happen: from the more populated areas to the recreation sites and trailheads. They’re working with Pacific Gas and Electric, which was blamed for the Butte Fire in Calaveras County last year, to identify potential hazards and trees too close to power lines, and with the California Department of Transportation to remove trees that endanger the highways.

“It’s really a unified effort,” Laeng said.

Residents and fire officials alike know that they can plan all they want and work to minimize the threat, but they fully expect a big one to hit at some point. Even if they could take down a significant number of dead trees, much of the wood is not salvageable, and there aren’t enough mills still running to handle what is.

The fact remains, they aren’t going to eradicate 66 million dead trees – a number that will no doubt continue to grow as more trees die and more surveys are made.

All of the players – the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Caltrans, the utilities and scores of private contractors are ready to mobilize and respond, Laeng said. That said, recognizing the more volatile and instantaneous conditions created by the dead trees, they will take a more measured approach to attacking fires in the die-off areas.

“We want to be aggressive, but our approach could be slightly different,” Laeng said. They’ll rethink the use of hotshot teams on the ground in areas where it is so dry that they would be endangered. Dead trees crown faster, blowing up and spewing off embers that spread the flames more quickly.

“Everybody comes home safe,” he said.

Home and cabin owners are on their own to drop trees on their properties, and the 30-foot clearance once mandated is now 100 feet – 150 is even better.

Views of vibrant green pines, cedars and others are now brown and orange, as the Perrys can attest. They are doing what they can do to protect their land.

“We will no doubt spend a lot more money taking down trees in the next couple of years,” Sonja Perry said. “We will also be clearing more manzanita shrubs from our property. We will continue to be grateful for our Moose Ridge getaway and hope that someday new healthy trees will emerge. This may not happen in our lifetime.”