Tree mortality rate could reach 50%

More than 200 concerned Mountain Area residents attended a May 30 meeting at Oakhurst Elementary School to learn more about the fast-moving western pine beetle infestation that is killing millions of trees in Eastern Madera County and throughout California.

Millions of beetles, each the size of a grain of rice, are responsible for killing more than 12 million trees, primarily Ponderosa Pines, over four million acres of forest and private lands in the state. The Sierra and Sequoia National Forests alone have lost five million trees, a dramatic increase from the 350,000 dead trees reported last year in the same area.

According to Cal Fire Unit Forester Len Nielson, the beetles are overwhelming the defenses of water-starved trees. He explained that one mating pair can produce between 12 and 20 million beetles in a year.

The beetle population is normally kept in check by the winter cold and normal precipitation, but three years of above-average temperatures and lack of snowfall have provided little defense against the growing numbers of beetles.

Sierra National Forest Fuels Battalion Chief Burt Stalter, with the Bass Lake Ranger District, said it wasn’t long ago he was seeing five-acre patches of dense forest with dead trees, and now he is seeing 100-acre patches of destroyed trees.

Although currently it looks like there is a 10 to 30% tree mortality in the area, many in the gathering gasped when Nielson said he and other experts are predicting half the trees in the immediate area will be dead by the end of summer if the drought continues.

“It’s all about the competition for resources - and the scarce resource is water,” Nielson said. “This will affecting our area tremendously.”

And what the crowd found out was there is little they can do about it - other than cutting down and disposing of the dead trees on their property to lesson the threat of fire.

Because trees are competing for what little moisture there is in the ground, homeowners are being advised to thin trees on their property so that trees are a minimum of 12 feet apart.

Property owners losing large number of trees

Doug and Terri Pack live with their three boys on seven acres on Crane Valley Road (426) between Oakhurst and North Fork. Over the past two years, they have been forced to have 90 dead pine and cedar trees cut down on their property.

Nielson said that although the destruction of pine trees is the result of the beetles, cedar trees are dying from the lack of water.

“We had to cut down 40 to 50 cedars that were 100 to 150-feet tall,” Terri said. “It’s cost us thousands and thousands of dollars we were not prepared to spend ... it’s been devastating ... there is no way to budget for something like this.”

As much as a financial burden the tree removal placed on the family, Pack said her and her husband really feel sorry for seniors on fixed incomes.

“This is a horrible situation to seniors and others who can not afford to cut down dead trees on their property, and are now stressing over the increased fire danger from the trees,” Terri said.

The Packs used Advanced Tree Service, owned by Kent Tracy, to cut down the trees on their property, and were happy with the service they received.

“They did an exceptional job removing enormous trees right by our house safely and quickly,” Terri said. “We still have about 60 huge logs we have to cut and split.”

Property has changed

Rob Brown and his wife, Melinda Barrett, moved from Los Angeles to the Mudge Ranch subdivision south of Oakhurst a year ago. The main reason they bought their property was because of the gorgeous, old Ponderosa Pines on the two-acre lot.

“But within a year, they were all dead,” Melinda said. “Within three months of moving here, we had our first dead tree. Over the past nine months, we have been forced to cut down 20 Ponderosa Pine trees.”

After settling in to their new home in April, 2014, they started thinning out the small trees and brush and did some deep watering last summer, but it was too late.

“We lost the first tree in August and by November we had 20 dead Ponderosa Pines on our two acres,” Barrett said. “Most looked healthy in August but started to fade and then went totally brown quickly. When we cut down the first five trees, we were able to chip them and spread out the chips on the property to help keep more moisture in, but by January we were just getting the trees on the ground as fast as we could.”

Barrett said they found an excellent contractor, Mike Gomez of Clean Cut Tree Service, who worked closely with them, charging by the day.

“They felled as many as they could in a hard day’s work, piled what they could, and left the rest for us to deal with,” Barrett said. “PG&E took down seven more for us as they were threatening power lines. They cut them into four to eight-foot sections. We still have four or five standing dead pines that we can’t afford to take care of right now, but they are not threatening any structures or people.”

Barrett said most of the trees they lost were more than 100 years old.

“Our property has changed a lot,” she said. “It’s still beautiful, but it’s not the pine forest we thought we were going to be living in for the rest of our lives.”

Robert Bardwell and his wife, Louella, only have two pine trees on their Coarsegold property, but were interested in hearing the presentation to learn more about the beetle infestation.

“It was a very informative presentation ... the situation is bad,” Bardwell said. “I understand the feelings of people asking what the federal government is doing about all the dead trees on Forest Service property - but I realize it (the infestation) is already out of hand and they have no control over the beetles. Not much can be done due to the wide-spread volume of the beetles and there are not enough funds available to fight it.”

Adding to many homeowner’s frustration of removing trees from their property, is the fact that there are very little options to see the wood to mills.

Wheeler said many mills are not taking any trees because they are full to capacity with trees killed by the beetles.

“They are not taking anymore (trees), because there is a good chance the wood would be rotten by the time they can mill it,” Wheeler said.

Mike Willmott lives in Pierce Lakes Estates behind Yosemite High School. His mature pine trees look healthy, but he is concerned with the next door property (no house) that has two or three trees that don’t look so good.

“The neighbor is an absentee property owner so I’m hoping to find out where he lives so I can talk to him about removing those trees,” Willmott said. “It’s startling how fast this can happen.”

Although there are not the funds or the manpower to put a dent in the dead tree population in the forest, Stalter said crews are cutting down dead trees in high risk areas including camp grounds, trail head parking lots, and critical roads like the only access road in and out of Cedar Valley north of Oakhurst.

“If we had a fire in Cedar Valley, and some of those trees fell across the road, people would be blocked from getting out of there,” Stalter said.

Timber permits

Nielson said the dead trees should be removed from private property as soon as possible for fire prevention. A dead tree can catch fire three times quicker than a living tree, and with even a mild wind, embers can easily be blown two to three miles away.

If the wood is going to be traded, sold or battered, the property owner needs a no-fee Cal Fire permit to remove the timber. A licensed timber operator can get the permit on behalf of the homeowner. A permit is not required if the wood is going to be used by the property owner for personal use. The cost to cut down an average size tree by a professional is about $500.

If a homeowner’s property adjoins Forest Service property, and dead or dying trees on Forest Service property pose a threat to private property owners, a free permit to cut down and remove trees within 30 feet of the property line is available. For details, call the Bass Lake Ranger District, (559) 877-2218.

Additional western pine beetle information can be found by googling Cal fire Tree Notes.