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Drought keeps strangle hold on Sierras

The Foothills Sun-Gazette of Exeter, California

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Reports estimated tree mortality in the southern Sierra Nevada at 20%

tulare county — Recent rains may have helped your lawn look a little greener, but have done little to improve two of the most pressing concerns from the drought — water availability and wildfires.

At its Oct. 27 meeting, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors addressed the latter by reaffirming its Proclamation of Local Emergency due to tree mortality in the Sierra Ne-vadas. Supervisors originally proclaimed the emergency on Oct. 6 citing a lack of rain as the cause of "a significant number of trees to die or become stressed and unable to defend against insect and disease infestation." The proclamation came on the heels of an April 2015 survey of 4.1 million acres of trees. The survey estimated that 10 million trees on 835,000 acres had died in the southern Sierras.

"The severe conditions continue to pose increased threats to public health and safety, including fire, falling tree/debris and air quality hazards," the Oct. 27 report stated. "Recent fires, including the Rough Fire in Fresno and Tulare Counties and the tragic conflagrations in Lake and Calaveras Counties, serve as reminds of the extreme fire potential presented by drought and inadequate forest management."

In March, Chairman Steve Worthley challenged Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliot to do more to prevent wildfires or be faced with continued catastrophic consequences. "I don't see your agency treating this like an emergency. This is a wildfire, it's just burning a little slower."

Elliot told the Board Sequoia National Forest is beginning to show significant impacts of California's historic drought. An increase in dead and dying pine trees has boosted the bark beetle population, as the insect thrives in drought conditions. The pine beetle is part of the forests delicate ecosystem but under outbreak conditions, the sheer number of beetles can overwhelm a healthy tree's defenses, and the results can be disastrous. Elliot went on to explain that the National Park Service (NPS) officials understand that the situation poses risks to both the public and firefighters, but have struggled to make any head way due to litigation as well as a general lack of funding. With such a high increase in dead and dying pine, the forest has been compared to a gasoline can ready to be ignited at any moment. In the early fall of 2013 a similar situation erupted as a lightning storm ignited the Sequoia National Forest all the way to the Sierra Nevada's. The Rim Fire burned for nearly two months before officially being declared contained. A total of 11 residences, three commercial buildings, and 98 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire as well as burning 257,314 acres of forest. With dying pines expected to double in the next year there is an increased fear of a devastating forest fire burning throughout California. Due to timber restrictions and a overall lack of lumberyards in Tulare County the forest floor has become kindling.

"The immediate and long-term ramifications of the tree mortality are likely to have a continued impact on the health and safety of Tulare County residents and visitors, and negatively impact the economy of Tulare County," the Oct. 27 report concluded.

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Original Publication Date: November 4, 2015

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