Death in the forest increases fire risk |

Death in the forest increases fire risk

Trees dying from disease, insect infestations and a lack of water have begun to add to the already-critical fire danger in northeastern California’s national forests.

In an in-house report circulated this week, a U.S. Forest Service team said increased tree mortality has been seen all over the region, with high pockets of death in the Foresthill area and along Interstate 80 from Cisco Grove to Truckee on the Tahoe National Forest.

“We are not in a Southern California situation, but we are seeing the pockets quite a bit in Placer County,” said Tahoe Forest spokeswoman Ann Westling. “It’s heavier in some areas than others and seems to be in a variety of species.”

“I-80 is ugly,” said Sheri Smith, an entomologist in the Forest Service’s northeastern California Shared Services Area and one of the report’s contributors.

“We’ll fly aerial surveys and in another month have more information (for the Tahoe, Plumas, Lassen and Modoc national forests).”

The report stated, “land managers should expect a continued increase in mortality levels for the remainder of 2004 and 2005. … Expectations are that the amount of mortality detected in the upcoming 2004 aerial surveys will double or perhaps triple the level detected in 2003” for the I-80 corridor, Foresthill and Warner Mountain District of the Modoc National Forest.

Tahoe Forest officials said the best way to get ahead of the problem is thinning.

“If you can thin out trees, they are less susceptible to environmental effects,” said Steve Eubanks, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest. “You have fewer trees competing for moisture and nutrients.”

“It’s a density- and drought-induced mortality,” said Karen Jones, a forest ecologist in the Foresthill area. “We have trees riddled with insects. Thinning is the only answer.”

Jones said bugs are always in the forest waiting to attack, but healthy trees with sufficient water and nutrients can push them out when they burrow through bark.

“This year, the trees are not vigorous, and that’s not happening,” Jones said.

Beetles are attacking pine trees, and fir engravers are killing California red fir and white fir trees, Jones said.

“We’re also seeing white pine blister rust,” a disease that was introduced from Scotland in the 1930s by mistake. It is now killing undernourished sugar pine and western white pine trees.

“It usually doesn’t kill them this much,” Jones said.

Most of the area has experienced four years of below-normal precipitation, setting up the mortality conditions, the report said.

Both Jones and Westling said the conditions are much like the mortality that plagued northeastern California forests in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

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