Santa Barbara- S County

Drought Taking Toll On Local Trees

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SANTA MARIA, Calif. - July 7th was just another day on the job for Cobb's Tree Service. The company's workers, including owner Calvin Cobb, was busy as usual cutting down a large, dead Monterey pine tree in Arroyo Grande.

"The last two years, we have not missed a day of work, it's been that steady," said Cobb, who has been in the tree business for over 20 years.

Cobb says business is booming, not only because dry weather has allowed them to avoid rainout days, but also because there is so much work to be done, thanks in large part to California's historic drought.

"It's like (people) going out and exercising without drinking a lot of water," said Cobb. "They become dehydrated really fast and they become more susceptible to s insects and this is all varieties of trees, including the pines, oaks and eucalyptus."

The lack of water is causing immense stress to the tree population, leaving them in a weakened state and vulnerable to attack by life threatening dangers.  A recent survey estimated 12 million trees have died in California in just the last year. Trees on the Central Coast have been hit especially hard. A drive anywhere in both area counties will show there are dead and dying trees everywhere.

"It started with pine trees, it moved over into eucalyptus trees and now we see a lot more oak trees dying," said Cobb.

Monterey pines have been hit the hardest, with thousands becoming easy prey to invasive bark beetles.

"They're boring in and eating the cambium layer on the inside of the bark," said Cal Fire Unit Forester Alan Peters.

The rice sized insects come in numerous varieties and multiple by the millions and quickly devour trees. Once they get to work, it's only a short time until a tree's needles turn a deathly brownish orange before only a skeletal base remains.

"From non-symptomatic to symptomatic really occurs in just a matter of days and a tree can go from bright green, and apparently healthy, to orange and dead," said Peters.

The tiny ravenous pests then move on to another victim and then another, and will rapidly turn a grove into a graveyard.

"They start at one tree and the population builds and builds and then they fly off to next tree nearby and before you know it, that's how these developing patches and clumps of dead trees progress," said Peters.

No where on the Central Coast will you find greater patches of dead trees than in Cambria, the popular coastal hamlet famous for its "pines by the sea."

"You can see a change in the forest on a weekly or bi-weekly basis," said Cambria Fire Department Captain Steve Bitto. "Trees that looked fine two weeks ago are showing very serious signs of dying."

The high volume of dying trees in Cambria has created a perilous situation for most of the town's residents that live tucked away on steep, forested hillsides.

"The potential for a catastrophic fire is extremely high right now and odds of us being able to evacuate everybody in time and not having there be loss of life is not very good," said Bitto. "The potential for large number of people to die in a catastrophic fire is high."

Dead trees are of major concern to all local firefighters, especially when they fall over into dry brush.

"Once trees die they begin to fall over, then they fall over into the dry brush, then it just accumulates and we have what's called jackpots of fuel where we have giant limbs and tree tops that have fallen down into all this dry brush and then the fuel load is extremely high and it's all bone dry, so if there's a fire it's just ready to burn at a very high intensity," said Peters.

Falling trees also pose a threat to personal and property safety, while long-term negative consequences include loss of visual aesthetics, as well as landscape change.

"If the native species decline to a certain point, then areas that were formerly occupied trees may be occupied by brush, so we're very concerned about native habitat changes," said Peters.

As some trees struggle and lose the battle versus the drought, other species of trees are doing much better and remain as green as ever.

"Trees on north facing slopes are doing fine, trees along creek beds, willows, sycamores, where there's a lot natural water, those trees are doing just fine," said Cobb.

For the countless trees that aren't doing fine, death is imminent, but fortunately, many times where there's death, there's also life.

"As a big tree dies and the seeds are left on the ground, the acorns and lots of compost are left over needles, new trees are going to start with heavy rains," said Cobb.


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