Written by The Business Journal Staff
With the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history still burning in the southern Sierra this week, fears of a much bigger disaster loom with a sea of dead trees standing like big matchsticks up and down the mountain range.
Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley is pushing the idea to allow the export of dead trees from the local national forests to try to make at least a small dent in what could easily be a hellish catastrophe at our doorsteps this summer or fall.
“If we don’t do something dramatic there is going to be an explosion of wildfires sometime soon” given the huge increase in tree mortality measured in a recent aerial survey, he said.
Current law bans export of logs from the national forest. The rule was put in place years ago with the urging of the local logging industry to limit competition. But in large part that industry is long gone, but private enterprise could still make a difference, Worthley said.
Meanwhile, there is a potential calamity at our back door due to years of drought and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service recently announced that the number of dead trees has gone from 29 million to 66 million in just the past year.
“The problem is simply mind blowing,” said Worthley, who made the argument recently at a forest health round table session with Rep. Jim Costa in Clovis.
“Many of these trees have intrinsic value“ if they could be exported, and “private companies could get in and bring them down” to be shipped overseas, Worthley said.
That would take federal legislation done on an emergency basis with the help of both forest officials and Congress, he added.
“Turning on a few more biomass plants isn’t going to make it given the scope of the problem,” said Worthley, whose family once owned a Dinuba sawmill.
The most recent survey released last week found a worsening tree mortality problem in the past year, particularly in the southern Sierra mountains in Tulare, Fresno and Kern Counties, where dead trees per acre have reached more than 35.
Worthley said forest service representatives have claimed they are clearing some 13,000 acres of dead trees, but the depressing fact is that tree deaths are in the millions here.
He added a warning that the extent of dead trees near Sequoia groves is alarming, remembering that last year’s 156,000-acre Rough Fire burned some Big Trees in its wake. “This is the only part of the world where Giant Sequoias grow,” he said.
“The problem is while the governor has declared this to be a statewide emergency, this is happening on federal land,” Worthley said. “FEMA can’t act until there is catastrophic wildfire but we need to act before there is a firestorm.”
Between 2010 and late 2015, Forest Service aerial detection surveys found that 40 million trees died across California — with nearly three quarters of that total succumbing to drought and insect mortality from September 2014 to October 2015 alone. The survey identified approximately 26 million additional dead trees since the last inventory in October 2015. The areas surveyed in May covered six southern Sierra counties including Fresno, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Tulare.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently called for Congress to help as well.
“Tree dies-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk,” he said. “While the fire risk is currently the most extreme in California because of the tree mortality, forests across the country are at risk of wildfire and urgently need restoration requiring a massive effort to remove this tinder and improve their health. Unfortunately, unless Congress acts now to address how we pay for firefighting, the Forest Service will not have the resources necessary to address the forest die-off and restore our forests. Forcing the Forest Service to pay for massive wildfire disasters out of its pre-existing fixed budget instead of from an emergency fund like all other natural disasters means there is not enough money left to do the very work that would help restore these high mortality areas. We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country.”