Bark beetles: How tiny tree killers have worsened California’s wildfires
MARIPOSA, Calif. — A decade ago, Ben Ray had hoped to ease into retirement at his two-story wooden house nestled in the heart of the Sequoia National Forest. But the 79-year-old central California general contractor, who built homes for his future neighbors in Sierra Nevada Mountain communities such as Ponderosa and Pierpont, and his wife, Michelle, haven’t had the luxury of relaxation.
That’s because hundreds of once verdant pine and cedar trees, stretching far beyond their 5 acre spread, have perished at a rate so fast he’s lost count of the carnage.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Ray, a rugged heavyset man whose eyes wet behind his tinted sunglasses as he speaks of the destruction. “It’s just devastating to see our forest dying like this.”
The pine and cedar trees that have died on Ben and Michelle’s property are among the 66 million trees in California that have died since 2010, according to the US Forest Service. Over the past six years, thousands of fires have raged throughout the state’s lush forests, turning tens of millions of pine trees a charred shade of black. The disastrous drought conditions in California have turned forests into tinderboxes, resulting in record levels of tree deaths during that time.
“It’s gone from critical to catastrophic,” said Don Florence, emergency planner for Mariposa County, nearly 200 miles northwest of the Ray household. “If you drive around here, you’ll be at a loss over the pine trees. This isn’t a disaster affecting us tomorrow, or the next day. It means change that will affect the community for multiple generations.”
Now the lasting effects of a five-year drought have opened the door for the bark beetle, an indigenous insect the size of a grain of rice, to feast on pine trees left virtually defenseless in the wake of a water shortage.
Beverly Bulaon, an entomologist with the US Forest Service, said these beetles feed off nutrients found in tree bark, along the way releasing pheromones that attract swarms of their fellow insects. When enough beetles lay their eggs, reproducing in even greater masses, those trees become deprived of necessary nutrients.
Without enough water during the drought, many trees have weakened, and their chances of survival have subsequently diminished. By the time a pine tree’s needles turn brown, Michelle Ray said, it’s likely already dead, even if it’s still standing. They’ve become known by an apocalyptic nickname: zombie trees.
“They’re done already,” said Michelle, a resident of the area for nearly 40 years, “even if there’s still some green left.”
In that regard, droughts can be a death knell for trees, evident in the fact bark beetles have killed more trees than wildfires in some years, according to the US Department of Agriculture. As beetles continue to devour bark, Sequoia National Forest District Ranger Eric La Price said the latest round of fires scorched forests “a lot hotter and a lot faster than” in past decades.
“Because of that, the initial response to those fires is even more critical to get crews on them as soon as possible,” La Price said. “They’re able to spread faster than they were because of the amount of dead material up there.”
Heartbeat from Homelessness
According to Florence, state experts predict the bark beetles will continue to affect his neck of insect-infected woods for at least another 18 months. To combat the larger catastrophe caused by beetles, drought and wildfires, he said local emergency responders need more resources from state and federal agencies.
“People don’t know what to do about dying trees, it’s an uncomfortable subject, like hearing about people dying of starvation in other countries,” said Andy Lipkis, president and founder of TreePeople, an environmental advocacy group based out of Los Angeles. “The Forest Service has been underfunded for decades. They need help dealing with dying trees.”
Leaning against her white truck, Michelle offered up a prayer in the hope that something can be done to save those trees from dying. In her opinion, more money should be spent on preventing fires rather than containing blazes after they’ve spread.
Ben said something must be done fast. Faced with a new fire threat this week — one that could spread fast given all the dead trees in sight — Ben Ray said he fears it’s not just trees that could perish, but potentially the houses he built, including his own.
“In a heartbeat, this could be gone, just gone,” he said. “Our home, our future, gone.”