SACRAMENTO — For any lover of trees, the deadly fungus called Sudden Oak Death is alarming enough, as it has killed thousands of oaks in Northern California.
Beside the environmental damage, however, fire experts worry the thousands of dry, dead oaks drooping along the northern coast are potential torches waiting to light up during one of the most dangerous fire seasons in years.
Dryer than healthy trees, infected oaks are more likely to catch fire and turn into conduits for racing flames and exploding embers carried by the wind, fire prevention experts said.
When they burn, dead trees “generate a lot of heat and make fires burn hotter and make them more difficult to control,” said Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Fires ignite more easily and the trees become fuel.”
So many dead oaks are making this year’s fire season the most dangerous in years, experts said.
Already, state forestry and fire protection officials declared fire season a month earlier this year, as they went to peak staffing because of record heat, unusual dryness and erratic winds.
“The northern 40 percent of the state this year is extremely dry or in drought conditions,” Blumberg said.
“We’ve already seen 12 major forest fires in California by this time, when it’s usually one or two,” said Matthew Mathes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
On Sunday, a huge fire erupted in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Truckee, Calif., and burned toward Reno, Nev. Flames and smoke also led authorities to close Interstate 80.
Last week, Gov. Gray Davis cited a 68 percent increase in wildfires and issued a new fire plan that includes buying equipment, hiring new firefighters and preparing the state National Guard. “This could be one of the worst fire seasons in California history,” he said.
The CDF is responsible for about a third of the 101 million acres in California, with a budget of $380 million. This year, it has asked for and received an additional $24 million. The department responds to an average of 6,700 fires a year covering almost 160,000 acres, said Karen Terrill, a CDF spokeswoman.
The CDF also received $2.8 million from the federal government to prepare for fire season.
“One of our main concerns is all the dead trees in those” seven counties where Sudden Oak Death is a problem, Terrill said. Some of the precautions include sawing off dry weed and brush that could conduct flames.
Caused by a newly described fungus called Phytophthora, Sudden Oak Death also resembles the species that caused the 1845 potato famine in Ireland. Since the disease first appeared in 1995 in Mill Valley, Calif., it has killed tens of thousands of oak trees from Sonoma County to Big Sur. It attacks tanoak, coastal live oak and black oak, and scientists still don’t know how the disease is spread.
While a major concern in California, Sudden Oak Death has other states alarmed as well. In January, Oregon officials imposed a quarantine on oak firewood and nursery stock from California. Dead oaks in California led to them being cut for firewood and then shipped out of state.
A series of measures in the California Legislature and Congress would give more funds to fighting the Sudden Oak Death and reducing its fire hazards.
The Assembly passed a bill by Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, that calls for $4.7 million to cut the risks of Sudden Oak Death by clearing dead trees and other measures. The state Senate has a similar bill pending.
In Congress, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is sponsoring legislation that would provide more than $70 million over the next five years for researching the disease and preparing for fire risks. Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Santa Rosa, has sponsored a similar bill in the House.
In the revised May budget, Davis proposed $1.9 million for research and fire precaution.