CALIFORNIA’S DROUGHT, TREE MORTALITY AND WILDFIRES

If you have lived in California in a wildland urban interface area for more than five years, you are one of over 36 million residents who have witnessed a major five year statewide drought.

The drought was serious in 2011 and 2012 as the state experienced no appreciable rain. The driest year on record was recorded in 2013. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown issued a statewide drought emergency proclamation after traveling the state and witnessing the devastation caused by no rain, hot weather, wildfires, little  mountain snow and a growing beetle infestation that was killing millions of trees in the state’s forests from the Sierras to San Diego.

In 2015, Governor Brown initiated a Tree Mortality Task Force comprised of state and federal agencies and charged them with studying and working to eliminate the tree devastation covering the state. It included a one-time increase of $11 million General Fund dollars for CAL FIRE to assist in the removal and disposal of trees in high hazard areas. This includes: $6 million for the California Conservation Corps and grants to local entities, including local government, fire districts, local conservation corps, tribal entities, and fire safe councils, to provide support to local efforts to remove hazardous trees that pose a threat to public health and safety. An additional five million was authorized to support additional miscellaneous equipment, personnel overtime for foresters, hand crews, engine companies, and heavy equipment operators, for hazardous tree removal and fuels reduction efforts.

Lakes dried up; brush in the wildland urban interface turned into tinder boxes; and by 2016, widespread beattle infestation resulted in more than 102 million trees dead or dying throughout the state’s forests. Niel Fisher, PG&E Forest Vegetation Manager and Jerry Davies, California Fire Safe Council Chairman got a first hand look at the devastation by flying in a helicopter over Fresno, a nearly dried up Bass Lake, Yosemite and north. “It was hard to look at, so many dead trees that posed unbelieveable fire threats to towns and cities in the WUI areas,” noted Davies.

“We ought to be ready for a long, continuous, persistent effort, including the possibility of drinking-water shortages, Governor Brown said. “I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries.”

 

The US Forest Service in May 16-19, 2016 conducted a Forest Health Protection Special Aerial Detection Survey

 

Summary:

Acres surveyed: 4.5 million

Acres with elevated conifer mortality: 876,000

Estimated number of dead conifer trees: 27 million

 

Background:          

Significant portions of California including the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the central coast are well into their third year of exceptional drought conditions and fifth year of drought conditions overall. In addition, many of California’s forests are overly dense with trees and bark beetles have taken advantage of these conditions resulting in very high levels of tree mortality. Where drought conditions have become increasingly severe and prolonged, tree mortality continues to increase both in scale and intensity. This special early survey was conducted to assess mortality levels in low elevation pine and oak woodlands along the Sierra Nevada Range and other forested areas where the drought conditions have been the most severe and prolonged. Forest Health Protection had conducted a special early season aerial survey covering much of this area in April 2015. These special aerial surveys are standalone events and not cumulative with acres and tree mortality numbers generated during the normal summer surveys since a great deal of duplication is inevitable.

Approximately 4.5 million acres were surveyed; primarily on the Sierra, Sequoia and Los Padres NFs, as well as portions of the Shasta Trinity, Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, El Dorado and Stanislaus National Forests including large areas of private lands along the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Other areas surveyed includes parts of the Tehachapi Range, southeastern Coastal Ranges and several State Parks.

 

  • Pine mortality was widespread, but most intense from the Mt. Pinos area on the Los Padres NF through the Tehachapi Range and into the southern Sierra Nevada Range. Ponderosa, Jeffrey and sugar pine along with white fir and various oaks are the most common tree species in this area and accounted for most of mortality.
  • Considerable white fir and incense-cedar mortality was also observed, especially in the southern Sierra Nevada Range.
  • Oak mortality, especially live oak, was also widespread especially in southern portions of the Sierra Nevada Range and along the Tehachapi Range. Oaks closet to the coast had virtually no mortality despite being located within the most exceptional drought areas.
  • Drought, bark beetles and other interacting stressors have also heavily impacted Coulter pine throughout its range. Coulter pine occurs primarily in isolated hilltop stands and in many areas, most of the trees in all age classes and sizes have been killed.
  • Unlike surveys from the past few years, gray and pinyon pine located in lower elevations did not show signs of recent mortality.
  • Severe drought induced oak discoloration/defoliation seen in recent past surveys was not apparent and virtually none was mapped. Significant blue oak mortality was verified.

 

The drought brought extreme wildland fire threats to the state. Wikipedia drew a chart of  the fires that struck California from 2009-2016, with a description of the Detweiler Fire in Mariposa County in 2017.

The work of Cal Fire and the Forest Service to suppress the fires has been outstanding. But, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott warns: “No amount of rain will bring back 102 million dead trees and it will take several years of continued precipitation to undo the effects of our severe five-year drought,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director, and California’s state forester. “We continue to see the effects of our changing climate on the landscape. Fire seasons are getting longer and hotter, and there has been a significant increase in the occurrence of large and damaging wildfires.”

The U.S. Forest Service announced July 17, 2017 the Cleveland National Forest will operate under elevated fire restrictions.

Elevated fire restrictions kick in every summer in the Cleveland National Forest, and they take several forms. There is no smoking on forest lands. Welding, grinding and the use of explosives are prohibited.

Any combustible engine used in the forest – on, say, a chain saw or an ATV – must have a spark arrestor on its exhaust system. A spark from a vehicle exhaust was found to be the cause of last week’s Jennings Fire in East County, the investigation shows that she wasn’t even to afford a cheap motor trade insurance, since the car wasn’t covered at all.

Brian Rhodes is Fire Chief for the Cleveland National Forest. He said moving to elevated restrictions is due to summer heat and low moisture levels in the plants.

He said fire restrictions in the Cleveland National Forest will revert down to the “general” status near the beginning of the wet season in October or November. This year, elevated fire restriction were put in place about a month later than last year. Rhodes said that’s because the region had quite a bit more rain this year.

 

 

Station


Los Angeles
160,577 649.8 26 August 2009 16 October 2009 209 structures destroyed; 2 fatalities [37]
Rush Lassen 315,557 1,277.0 12 August 2012 30 August 2012 1 barn destroyed [38]
Springs Ventura 28,000 110 2 May 2013 6 May 2013 20 outbuildings destroyed [39]
Powerhouse Los Angeles 30,000 120 30 May 2013 10 June 2013 24 structures destroyed [40]
Mountain Riverside 27,531 111.4 15 July 2013 21 July 2013 23 structures destroyed [41]
Silver Riverside 20,292 82.1 7 August 2013 12 August 2013 48 structures destroyed [42]
Rim Tuolumne 257,314 1,041.3 17 August 2013 24 October 2013 112 structures destroyed [43]
Clover Shasta 8,073 32.7 9 September 2013 15 September 2013 68 homes destroyed; 1 fatality [44]
Happy Camp Complex Siskiyou 134,056 542.5 14 August 2014 31 October 2014 6 structures destroyed [45]
King El Dorado 97,717 395.4 13 September 2014 9 October 2014 80 structures destroyed [46]
Boles Siskiyou 516 2.1 15 September 2014 11 October 2014 157 structures destroyed [47]
Lake San Bernardino 31,359 126.9 17 June 2015 1 August 2015 4 structures destroyed [48]
North San Bernardino 4,250 17.2 17 July 2015 21 July 2015 7 structures destroyed [49]
Rocky Lake 69,438 281.0 29 July 2015 14 August 2015 43 structures destroyed [50]
Butte Amador and Calaveras 70,868 286.8 9 September 2015 1 October 2015 818 structures destroyed; 2 fatalities [51]
Valley LakeNapa and Sonoma 76,067 307.8 12 September 2015 15 October 2015 1,955 structures destroyed; 4 fatalities [52]
Erskine Kern 47,864 193.7 23 June 2016 11 July 2016 309 buildings destroyed; 2 fatalities [53]
Sand Los Angeles 41,432 167.7 22 July 2016 3 August 2016 18 homes destroyed, 2 fatalities [54]
Soberanes Monterey 132,127 534.7 22 July 2016 12 October 2016 57 homes, 11 outbuildings destroyed, 1 fatality [55]
Chimney San Luis Obispo 46,344 187.5 13 August 2016 6 September 2016 68 structures destroyed [56]
Clayton Lake 3,929 15.9 13 August 2016 26 August 2016 175 structures destroyed, including a Habitat for Humanity office [57]
Blue Cut San Bernardino 37,000 149.7 16 August 2016 23 August 2016 105 homes, 213 outbuildings destroyed, 82,000+ evacuated [58]
Loma Santa Clara 4,474 18.1 26 September 2016 12 October 2016 28 structures destroyed [59]
Detwiler Mariposa 70,096 283.7 16 July 2017 45 structures destroyed

 

Several wildfires are burning at this time (July 2017). Cal-Fire, USFS, BLM and all state and local fire agencies are continuing an incredible pace at knocking the fires down as they occur.

THE DROUGHT IS BROKEN IN 2017

 

In a typical year, California has between 10 to 15 “atmospheric river” storms, according to the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UC San Diego. The drought finally came to an end when 30 atmospheric storms produced heavy rains October 2016 through February 2017. California averaged 27.81 inches of precipitation, the highest average since such records began being kept in 1895, according to data released by the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, a significant Sierra snowpack provided a big spring runoff that refilled lakes and streams in the state.

The record precipitation has allowed California to pull out of a five-year drought. In March 2016, just 5 percent of California was classified as free from drought. As of March 2, 2017, 91 percent of the state was no longer in drought condition, according to federal scientists.

While this year’s storms have not been as catastrophic as previous winters, the winter rainfall wrecked Oroville Dam’s spillway, flooded downtown San Jose and closed Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada under record-breaking blizzards.

The conveyor belt of atmospheric rivers has created the wettest winter ever measured in the Northern Sierra, with precipitation at 180 percent of the historic average. As of March 5, 2017, eight key weather stations from Lake Tahoe to Mount Shasta measured an average of 77.3 inches of precipitation. A normal year is 50 inches, and this year’s total is even running above the monster winters of 1997-98 and 1982-83.

The heavy rains, followed by hot weather have presented another serious problem. They have resulted in heavy brush and fuel growth throughout the state. Cal Fire, USFS, BLM and all local fire and disaster agencies throughout the state are working at a rapid pace to make sure fires are put down as quickly as possible.

“The loss of homes and property during and after a wildfire is devastating. Firefighters are doing their very best to save homes and residents in wildfire areas. Residents must be prepared to evacuate if ordered,” said Jerry Davies. “The California Fire Safe Council commends Fire Safe Councils and local fire departments throughout the state for their fire prevention programs with residents.”

The Tree Mortality Task Force, has designated ten counties with emergency tree devastation. Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, Placer, Tulare, Tuolumne

 

TREE MORTALITY RELATED WEBSITES FOR MORE INFORMATION

 

California’s Tree Mortality Information Clearinghouse for Stakeholders

www.treetaskforce.org

Cals Tree Mortality Information Clearinghouse for the Public

www.prepareforbarkbeetle.org

 

California’s Tree Mortality Viewer

egis.fire.ca.gov/TreeMortalityViewer/

 

 

United States Forest Service-California Tree Mortality Information

http://www.fs.usda.gov/CATreeMortality

 

California Fire Safe Council

www.Californiafiresafecouncil.org