Fire mimicry reverses decline in coast redwoods

30 09 2018

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As I’ve discussed  previously (here), coast redwoods in many areas are showing symptoms of dieback, typically beginning towards the top and progressing downward. Drought and disease have been implicated in the redwood decline, but the true cause remains elusive. I suspect the decline is ultimately related to the altered fire ecology.

In October 2016 I applied fire mimicry treatments to a grove of coast redwoods in Alamo, CA that were in decline. Here are the results after two years.

Slide11 Read the rest of this entry »

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Sudden Oak Life talk and discussion on October 13, 2018

21 09 2018

For those of you interested in learning more about an ecological vs. pathological approach to Sudden Oak Death, please attend my talk and discussion on Saturday, October 13, 2018, 10 – 12 noon at Lyngso Garden Materials, San Carlos, CA. The talk is free but you must register at:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sudden-oak-life-registration-50423488010

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Do lichens play a role in oak decline?

20 07 2018
Lichens in tree

(image downloaded from web June 2013)

Any careful observer of oaks in California cannot help but notice a dense covering of lichens growing on the trunks and branches of many of the trees. In some cases, the biomass of lichens in the canopy rivals and even exceeds the biomass of the oak foliage. Under extreme conditions of lichen cover, the oaks appear sickly and in decline.

Lichens in oak

Coast live oaks covered in epiphytic Usnea and Ramalina lichens. (February 2018, Aptos, CA)

There is a popular meme in naturalist and conservation circles that lichens do not harm trees and merely use them for support. Adherents to this ‘harmless lichen’ meme point out that lichens are photosynthetic and, thus, do not draw any resources from the trees. Some note that lichens support nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which can add to the nutrient pool and benefit the trees. Furthermore, lichens are known to be highly sensitive to air pollution, so the presence of abundant lichens in a tree is a sign of good local air quality.

I have long been doubtful about the science behind this meme. As an experienced researcher of forest decline I have frequently noted that sick and dying trees often have a dense growth of lichens in their canopies. Defenders of the ‘harmless lichen’ meme describe this as the opportunistic growth of lichens on sick trees, as the reduced foliage allows for additional light for the lichens to grow. It is certainly true that lichens benefit from sick trees in this way, but I believe that lichens are not merely innocent bystanders or benefactors in the demise of a tree. Read the rest of this entry »





Fire mimicry treatments likely saved homes and oak groves from Sonoma wildfires

15 11 2017
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Compare untreated oaks in the background (right) with oaks in the foreground (left) treated with fire mimicry.

In 2009 I was contacted by a property owner who had just purchased a home and several acres of oak forest near the town of Sonoma, CA. The forest had been neglected for many years and was in poor health. There was also a dense growth of underbrush around the trees and many dead limbs on the oaks. I provided him a fire mimicry treatment plan that involved clearing of the underbrush and pruning the oaks, focusing on removing the ladder fuels near the ground. I also proposed to fertilize the oaks with alkaline-rich soil minerals, removed mosses and lichens from the trunks, and applied limewash.

The owner agreed to this plan and during the next couple years I and several colleagues spent many weeks clearing brush, pruning limbs, burning brush piles, and fertilizing a large grove of more than 50 valley oak, blue oak, and coast live oak trees.

Afterwards, in 2015, another property owner in Glen Ellen, CA contracted with me to care for her oaks with fire mimicry. This grove of about 30 oaks was treated in the same manner as described above.

Both of these properties were impacted by the recent wildfires in Sonoma.  Yesterday I visited these properties and I’m pleased to report that they sustained very little permanent damage. No structures were lost and nearly all of the oak trees appear to have survived. I estimate that the survival rate of trees on both properties is about 98%, although it will be another year or so before we know the exact percentage.

With regards to the first property, the photos here show that the fire burned the adjacent forest severely, with a complete loss of the forest canopy in places. However, once the fires reached the areas treated with fire mimicry, the severity lessened and fire stayed on the ground. None of the trees in the treated areas experienced a canopy fire. The boundary between the treated and untreated trees, showing this difference in fire severity, can be seen in the above and below photos.

I should add that while this home did not burn, four nearby homes were completely destroyed.

The second property also had no loss of structures and only minor damage to the oaks (see last photo below). The fire did not spread into the canopies and all of the affected oaks will likely recover.

With regards to the “cause” of these severe wildfires, some focus on the source of the initial spark, such as a downed power line or arson. Others point the finger at climate change affecting the health of the forests.

My take, based on the results shown here and elsewhere in the scientific literature, is that the cause of the severe wildfires is due to the suppression of fires and lack of management of the forests. Historically, oak forests were regularly burned by the California native people to enhance the health of the oak savanna ecosystem. Under a frequent burning regime the fires tended to be ground fires, which rejuvenate the soils but do not damage the tree canopies. Without these traditional management practices, our oak forests have become overgrown and stressed. Now-a-days, when fires do burn, they tend to be destructive canopy fires, rather than rejuvenating ground fires.

The oak forests and homes on these properties were saved in spite of adjacent ignition sources from raging fires. Nor did we change the climate. We simply went in ahead of time and mimicked wildfire in these areas. It is clear to me from this and other studies that proper forest management is fundamental in solving the wildfire problem in California.

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Fence line of property separating burned/untreated oak forests (right) and unburned/treated oak forests (left).

Read the rest of this entry »





Upcoming talk – “The cultural modification of trees and forests by California’s Native Peoples”

4 11 2017
CMT madrone

Culturally modified madrone tree in Big Sur, CA

In January 2018 I will be giving a talk “The cultural modification of trees and forests by California’s Native Peoples“, co-sponsored by the Sempervirens Fund and REI. Details of the talk are here. The talk is free but you will need to sign up through Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!

 





Forest restoration after the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, CA

5 03 2017
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Forest devastation following the Valley Fire in Lake County. Photo taken in October 2015.

In 2015 a devastating wildfire consumed large areas of Lake County, California. Prior to the fires I had been working with some properties affected by the fires and soon afterwards I visited these areas, volunteering my time, to help guide the land managers on how best to manage their lands after the fires. Yesterday I heard back from one of my friends asking about specifics in restoring their forests. My response seems appropriate for a wider audience, so I am posting it here as general informati0n for those who have been affected by wildfires, as well as those who have not . . . Read the rest of this entry »





News headline: “California Sudden Oak Death Reaches Catastrophic Levels”

29 10 2016

Yesterday I read a news report with the headline “California Sudden Oak Death reaches catastrophic levels“.

Yesterday I also read a news report “Standing Rock: militarized police from 5 states escalate violence . . .

Now it may seem obscure to most, but these two issues are intimately related. Let me explain how.

The first report states that California is experiencing a crisis in tree mortality with over 66 million dead trees, all attributed to a single disease (Sudden Oak Death) and a single insect pest (Pine Bark Beetle). The report features statements from two experts, a pathologist and an entomologist. Neither scientist mentions a single word about possible solutions.

And to make matters worse, regardless of which way the weather trends, they say that the death of the trees will be exacerbated. More drought will fuel Pine Bark Beetles, and wet weather will favor the spread of Sudden Oak Death. All appears hopeless in any direction.

Now I have no problem highlighting the serious forest health issues we are having in California. Trees are dying and it is affecting us all. The problem I have is that this issue is not reducible to two species of organisms. Even if we could find a cure for Sudden Oak Death and Pine Bark Beetles, the trees would still be dying. There are dozens of other diseases and insect pests that would fill their niches.

When one recognizes that the problems affecting our forests are not pathological or entomological, but are ecological and ethnographical in nature, then solutions become self-evident. California forests that were tended with fire by native people for thousands of years are now declining due to over-competition and soil acidification. Diseases and pests that are normally controlled by fire are now flourishing.

As the Standing Rock protest illustrates, we have lost our connections to the people and practices that gave us such magnificent lands and forests. Honoring our native people by tending to their legacies is one way of supporting all that they live and stand for.

This website is offered as testimony to the promise of traditional values and knowledge in forest health and restoration. Contained here are many hundreds of photos documenting the recovery of sick and diseased trees using solutions based on practices and materials used by native people for thousands of years.

In other news from yesterday – a sick oak that has been treated with traditional practices is making a steady comeback . . .

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