Sudden Oak Death
Dead Trees and Fire
as printed in the Point Reyes Light August 2007
By Tom Gaman
Everybody in West Marin has noticed the dead trees. Sudden Oak Death has returned with vengeance after two wet years and now a dry one. The fungus-like tree disease has recently killed up to one-third of the trees in some local mixed hardwood forests. Hillsides of dead trees can been seen from Tomales Bay, on Marin watershed lands, and wherever tanbark oaks grow here. (continued below)
below: dead tanoaks on Marin Municipal Water District Lands Summer 2007
These forests have evolved over millennia and are accustomed and adapted to frequent high intensity natural fire. Coupled with our Mediterranean climate, hot indian summer days, and Santa Ana winds, the enormous tree die off is, according to National Park Service fire officer Jennifer Chapman, a “huge emerging fuels issue” which raises the specter of another ghastly and damaging wild fire at the Point Reyes. Given the combination of fire weather, high winds, uninterrupted fuels, and any ignition source, wild fire can be completely unstoppable.
In broad recognition of fire issues throughout the west, the National Fire Plan, through the National Park Service and Fire Safe Marin, has funded over 50 “firesafe” projects here. These include miles of roadside vegetation management work completed since 2002 on Inverness Ridge, in Seahaven, along highway 1, near Bolinas and elsewhere in Marin. The goal is to make wild fire less damaging to both property and native ecosystems.
Like other government programs, those funds have been much reduced in recent years in spite of increasing demand. Fire preparedness is expensive and prevention work is needed at thousands of locations in many counties. Competition for community fire safe grant funds is now statewide, channeled through the California Fire Safe Council. In West Marin neighborhoods that are very susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, it makes sense for groups to plan far in advanceorganize and prioritize necessary funding requests for management of community defensible space. However, grant funds are miniscule when compared to the magnitude of the problem. According to Chapman “we want to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, but what we have done on the ground is only like a ‘band-aid’”.
It is of course ironic that public fire prevention funds are so meager. CalFire (formerly California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or CDF) is in the business of fire suppression. The agency has the readiness and capacity to respond to emergencies. It can place hundreds of fire trucks, a dozen air tankers or helicopters, and thousands of fire fighters anywhere in California within hours; and can spend unlimited millions of dollars in emergency taxpayer funds to do so. By contrast, roadside thinning along Drakes View Drive was inexpensive though it took a year in planning, local support, dozens of meetings of residents, three years of budget development, and months of hard labor. Aware of their local fuels problems the residents of homes along Drakes View Drive have recently passed a parcel tax to fund and maintain their own community vegetation management fire safe programs.
This is a problem for West Marin that is not going to go away any time soon. Tanbark oaks are highly vulnerable to Sudden Oak Death as, unlike other host species, both leaves and bark tissue are susceptible. When affected by the SOD, the inner bark tissue dies, encircling and girdling the tree, which shows no natural resistance at all. West Marin has about a million more native tanbark oaks ready to suddenly wilt and turn brown. Research is ongoing, and some foresters believe that tanbark oaks may all eventually succumb to SOD. Areas along Inverness Ridge that escaped fire in 1995 are now littered with thousands of dead trees with drying twigs hanging onto dead leaves. The leaves will fall and the trees will rot in time, but for now, the risk of fire is as extreme as it has been in many years. Most wooded areas of West Marin are highly vulnerable. To compound this problem, uncut grasses along roads provide a ready potential source of ignition from an auto accident, cigarette, or even a piece of broken glass.
Inverness homeowners are piling brush this week. A community chipper, funded in part from fire safe grants organized by the IPUD, is going to grind its way through Inverness next week. Other local landowners can drop off their brush and green waste at the B.B. Ranch in Olema this weekend--August 11 & 12.
Neighborhood associations and individual homeowners should take action. Residents are well advised to take advantage of the chipper days. Remove dead branches and maintain a reasonable fire safe buffer, particularly on the downhill side of your house. Think ahead and be prepared. What should you do in the event of a fire?
Tom Gaman is forester living in Inverness. email@example.com
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