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Tree Mortality & Bark Beetle FAQ's


Bark beetles and drought are creating havoc in California’s forested areas. Together they are a deadly combination. Millions of trees have died and the devastation continues. The following FAQs address key information property owners need to know to optimize tree health and reduce wildfire risk.

Why are Millions of Trees Dying?


High levels of tree mortality are occurring on forested lands in California due to drought and bark beetles.
 
Although the current drought is the primary catalyst, California’s forests are in sync with many other western forests with tree health in serious decline, often compromised by the existence of too many trees competing for limited resources, especially water.

Trees that appear healthy and green during periods of normal or above normal precipitation can become severely compromised and easy targets for bark beetles during periods of drought.

When, where, and the extent to which bark beetle related tree mortality occurs is influenced by forest stand conditions and weather patterns. A dramatic rise in the number of dead trees follows one to several years of inadequate moisture.

Stressed trees are suitable host material for bark beetles and their successful colonization results in more beetles and higher levels of tree mortality. The more severe and prolonged the drought, the greater the number of dead trees.

Tree losses are expected to continue to increase until precipitation levels return to normal or above normal for one to multiple years.


 

How do Beetle Outbreaks Contribute to Wildfire Concerns?

Many people get concerned that numerous standing dead trees contribute to the already ominous fire situation in many of our forests.

Typically, beetle-killed trees shed their needles within a few months of dying, so they don’t create as big a threat to fire spread as expected, however, high amounts dead trees do present a threat of spotting when a forest fire is burning around them.

Once trees fall, a fire could potentially burn longer and hotter, damaging soils and adversely affecting the site in the long-term.

What is a Bark Beetle? Where Does it Live? What Does it Do?

Native bark beetles act as “agents of change” and play an important role in healthy, functioning forest ecosystems.

Bark beetles are small insects, about the size of a grain of rice, and brown to black in color. Their entire life is spent inside the tree except for a portion of time when beetles emerge to attack trees.

After attack, they emit a chemical (called a pheromone) that attracts other beetles. The beetles then mate and lay eggs in galleries or chambers they construct between the bark and the wood.

Adult beetles carry staining fungi which is introduced into the tree during feeding and gallery construction.

Tree mortality occurs from a combination of the fungi invading the water conducting tissue, and feeding and gallery construction by the adult beetles and larvae.

The primary bark and engraver beetle species of concern in California are in the genera Dendroctonus, Ips and Scolytus. Most of the current tree mortality has been caused by western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis), mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and Ips species.

 

Why do Drought Conditions Help Bark Beetles?

Trees possess defense mechanisms that help them fend off attacks by bark beetles. When beetle populations are low and adequate moisture is available, trees have the advantage.

Healthy trees can produce enough resin (pitch) to overcome attacks by “pitching out” beetles that are attempting to bore in through the bark.

During drought or when trees are severely stressed by other factors (competition, diseases), they are not able to produce enough resin to defend against numerous attacks.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Bark and Engraver Beetle Attacks:

Many signs and symptoms of attack are similar regardless of the tree or beetle species.

External signs of beetle infestation are pitch tubes (combination of pitch, boring dust, frass) small holes in the bark, the presence of boring dust (produced by the beetle chewing) and/or frass (produced by the beetle feeding) and bark flaking by woodpeckers.

Pitch tubes resulting from successful attacks are typically reddish in color and vary in size depending on the beetle species. White or cream colored pitch tubes may be indicative of unsuccessful attacks.

Removing some bark will reveal adult and larval galleries, as well as dead or degraded inner bark. Galleries may or may not be packed with frass.

Trees with large amounts of dry boring dust in bark crevices and/or scattered around the base of the tree are likely dead or dying.

If a tree is infested with beetles, woodpeckers may chip off bark to feed on beetle larvae and pupae.

The first symptom of beetle-caused tree mortality is typically fading needles. Needles on successfully attacked trees begin fading and changing color over a period of several months.

 

What can Homeowners Do?

There is nothing that can be done to save a tree once it is infested with bark beetles.

Improving tree growing conditions through selective tree removal (thinning) reduces inter-tree competition for limited water and nutrients. The best time to thin is during non-drought periods.

Know what tree species you have and identify individuals that are most susceptible to drought and bark beetles. Also identify trees for removal that may be hazardous to life or property.

Individual tree treatments such as preventive spraying with insecticides, the use of synthetic products that repel bark beetles, supplemental watering and prompt removal/disposal of infested trees may all be effective depending on the situation and the tree species at risk.

Avoid ineffective and unproven treatments. Treatments such as applying worm castings to the trunk, spraying insecticides into bark beetle entrance/exit holes or applying acephate via an encapsulated implant have no scientific support for being effective.

Do not leave cut green limbs, branches or wood in the vicinity of live trees. Some beetles are attracted to this material and doing so could result in more tree mortality.

Consult with a forest health specialist to determine the best treatments for your trees as there are several factors to consider and pros and cons to every treatment.

 

What is tree mortality?

Tree mortality means trees have died. Trees dying is a normal occurrence in natural ecosystems. The difference now is that the extended drought has caused an abnormally high number—in the millions—of trees in California’s forests and wildland-urban interface areas to weaken and/or die. Weakened trees are more susceptible to attacks from bark beetles. Once a tree is successfully invaded by bark beetles, there is no recovery for the tree; it will die.
 

How significant is California’s tree mortality from bark beetles and drought?

According to the U.S. Forest Service, tree mortality from bark beetles and drought has reached over 29 million trees, up from 3.3 million trees in 2014. Most tree mortality in California has occurred in the southern Sierra Nevada and the Central Coast. Researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science have learned that approximately 58 million additional large trees are suffering from severe canopy water losses.
 

What trees in California are dying in the greatest numbers from drought and bark beetle?

Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, and pinyon pines are most impacted by bark beetles, but many trees have died just from lack of water in the current drought. Most other pine species, white fir and incense-cedar are also heavily impacted by the prolonged drought and by bark beetles. There is also an increase in tree mortality among oaks, although it is primarily attributed to drought, not bark beetles.
 

How do bark beetles multiply?

Beetles bore through tree bark and lay their eggs. Larvae feed on the tree’s living tissues, cutting off its natural process for transporting nutrients and water. One bark beetle infestation can create several thousand beetles and easily spread to neighboring trees.
 

What is the role of bark beetles?

Under normal conditions, bark beetles renew the forest by killing older trees and those weakened by disease, drought, smog or physical damage. When trees are weakened due to lack of water from prolonged drought, they are more susceptible to bark beetle attacks. Increasingly successful attacks cause the bark beetle population to explode.
 

If there are dead trees on my residential property, what should I do?

Dead trees need to be removed. They are a fire hazard because they are fuel for wildfire to burn. Standing dead trees will rot, becoming unstable, and will eventually fall. Dead trees can fall on people, homes, buildings and infrastructure, such as power lines. The sooner a tree is removed the better. The more it rots, the more unstable it becomes. For larger trees located near houses and other infrastructure, foresters and arborists prefer to remove them in pieces. However, if the tree is too rotten, it is unsafe to climb and difficult to predict where it will fall.
 

Whose responsibility is it to remove a dead tree?

On private property, it is the responsibility of the property owner to remove dead and dying trees. It is recommended that landowners consult with a licensed professional forester or arborist if they are unfamiliar with tree harvesting practices.
 

Will the Governor’s Executive Order (October 2015) regarding tree mortality provide assistance to homeowners and private land owners?

California’s Tree Mortality Task Force will be looking at resources and funding to help landowners, especially those located near evacuation routes, power lines, public roads and infrastructure. Currently, CAL OES is reviewing potential use of the California Disaster Assistance Act for Tree Mortality to local jurisdictions (counties, cities, and special districts) to help with the identification, removal, and storing of dead trees. Local jurisdictions must apply and show risk to public infrastructures.
 

What if I don’t take them down? How long before the trees become unstable and fall in the winter storms, (snow, rain, wind).

The dead trees should be removed as soon as it is practicable to take them down. The longer the dead tree stands the higher the likelihood it could fall and hit your home, vehicle, or a neighbor’s property when it. Contact your homeowner’s insurance carrier to determine if your property is covered for this type of event, or if your tree lands on someone else’s property.

I can’t afford to remove my trees, what should I do?

Investigate local assistance opportunities. Most likely there are others in the community with a similar situation. There may be local efforts to help those needing assistance. Talk to your local Fire Safe Council or your local fire department. The state’s Tree Mortality Task Force is looking for opportunities to host “resource fairs” in affected communities where local groups and individuals will be able to meet with multiple agencies to talk about available funding. Information on these funding fairs will be posted on www.PrepareForBarkBeetle.org.
 

What do I do with my dead trees now that I’ve cut them down?

You can either leave the dead trees on your property or you can have them removed. If you are leaving the trees on your property they need to be properly handled. If you plan on using the wood for firewood, cut to the appropriate size and store. Wood from bark beetle-infested trees can be covered with plastic, following a specific technique to kill the beetles, and left covered for several months. See Tree Note 3 for more information. If wood is not going to be used, lop—or chip and scatter—the wood. The smaller the pieces the better. Chipping will kill bark beetles and the smaller pieces are less of a fire hazard.
 

Can dead trees be burned?

Yes, on permitted burn days. Check with your local fire station, CAL FIRE office, or air quality district for details on burn days and proper burning requirements.
 

Are there restrictions on the usage of wood from diseased trees?

If you plan to use a diseased tree for firewood, follow proper storage techniques and make sure the wood is burned locally. Do not transport firewood to another location as it may introduce detrimental insects and disease into a new area.

Is the wood from dead trees safe to use as mulch around a home?

Yes. If chips are from a bark beetle infested tree, chipping and scattering will also kill the beetles. Trees dead from drought are also safe to use. If the tree is dead from other insects or diseases, check with a licensed forester before using around your home.

Do I need to hire a licensed tree service or can I cut down dead trees on my property?

It is highly recommended that you hire a professional to cut down your trees, as tree removal can be dangerous. Falling trees can also be hazardous to people, nearby buildings, cars, other trees and infrastructures. It is also a good idea to make sure you, or your contractor, have adequate liability and damage insurance coverage.

What environmental requirements are there for removing dead trees on my property?

It is highly recommended that you hire a professional to cut down your trees, as tree removal can be dangerous. Falling trees can also be hazardous to people, nearby buildings, cars, other trees and infrastructures. It is also a good idea to make sure you, or your contractor, have adequate liability and damage insurance coverage.

Is there a limit to the number of dead trees that can be removed from a property?

No. If the dead trees are in areas surrounding a home, buildings or infrastructure, these trees should be removed first. If the trees are in a forest, some dead trees may be left as snags for wildlife habitat. Dead trees located near fuel breaks, and within 100 feet of all structures, need to be removed.

Can I use the timber I cut on my property?

If you plan to utilize the wood for yourself, such as for firewood, you do not need to file a timber harvest plan with CAL FIRE. However, if you plan to sell logs or chips that result from tree removal, or use their value to offset the cost of removal, you are required to file a timber harvest document with CAL FIRE.

How do I prevent bark beetles in the future?

If you plan to utilize the wood for yourself, such as for firewood, you do not need to file a timber harvest plan with CAL FIRE. However, if you plan to sell logs or chips that result from tree removal, or use their value to offset the cost of removal, you are required to file a timber harvest document with CAL FIRE.

How does California’s bark beetle problem compare with that of the rest of the nation?

Bark beetles have destroyed 45 million acres of forest in the western United States in recent years, including 15 million acres of Forest Service land. Studies have shown that trees are dying faster than ever in old-growth forests of California and the mountains of the West. In addition to the drought and bark beetle infestations, some scientists have linked tree mortality to rising temperatures, earlier than normal snowmelt, and forest fires.

What are the long-term consequences of shrinking forests?

As forests shrink, less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in the living tissues of the trees in the forest. This means more greenhouse gases will be released from dead trees and enter the atmosphere, and fewer trees will remain to absorb carbon dioxide.

How can I reduce the risk of wildfire on my property?

Remove dead trees, especially around your home.

  • Create 100 feet of “defensible space,” the natural and landscaped area around a structure that has been maintained and designed to reduce fire danger.
  • Maintain trees by thinning overgrown trees and watering as necessary.
  • Plant a diversity of tree species, including drought tolerant species of trees native to the area.

How dangerous are these trees if they’re left standing?

Standing dead trees will quickly begin to deteriorate, becoming unstable, and will eventually fall. Dead trees and branches can fall on people, homes, buildings and infrastructure, such as power lines. The sooner a tree is removed the better. The more it deteriorates, the more unstable it becomes.

Is it safe for me to take the dead trees down myself?

For larger trees located near houses and other infrastructure, foresters and arborists prefer to remove them in pieces. However, if the tree is too decayed, it becomes unsafe to climb and difficult to predict where it will fall.

Whose responsibility is it to remove a dead tree?

On private property, it is the responsibility of the property owner to remove dead and dying trees. It is recommended that landowners consult with a licensed professional forester or arborist if they are unfamiliar with tree harvesting practices.