After the Drought: Identifying and Replacing Dying Trees

Bark beetle tunnels beneath the bark of an American elm. (Photo by Deborah Bell/Smithsonian Institution)

Dead and dying trees across California are a grim reminder of five years of devastating drought. The southern parts of the state were hit hardest by the drought and have the heaviest tree losses. Most of the affected trees were stressed by lack of water, then devastated by bark beetles.

Although they are only about the size of a grain of rice, bark beetles have huge appetites. Different species of bark beetle attack different species of trees; out of 2,000 known species, approximately 200 are found in California alone. Outbreaks of bark beetles can kill large areas of forests and may spread tree diseases like Dutch elm disease.

Damaged trees will eventually rot, become unstable, and fall—on your home, vehicle, or even on a family member or pet. Removing dead trees opens up an opportunity to replant with locally native trees or trees more suited to surviving future droughts.

According to CalFire, signs and symptoms of bark beetle attack and infestation include bleeding or frothy wet material on hardwood trunks, pitch streaming on the trunk of some conifers, pitch tubes that can vary in size and color, from white to reddish brown or pinkish brown and cinnamon-colored, fine sawdust-like boring dust that collects in bark crevices and spider webs. An arborist can confirm the infestation.

If you have dead trees on your property, first determine if they are on a utility or city right-of-way. If so, check with the city, county or utility company to determine if they will remove the affected trees or if a permit is required to remove them. If no other entity will remove the trees, property owners are encouraged to safely remove them. Dying trees infested by bark beetles cannot be saved and must also be removed in order to prevent further infestations.

If you choose to replant, check with your local city or county to determine which trees will grow best in your area. Check with your local energy company; some have programs that offer free trees to customers. If you decide to remove the trees yourself, be sure to handle ones that show signs of bark beetle infestation carefully.

The California Contractors State License Board recommends when choosing professional tree removal that you always use a licensed Tree Service Contractor or licensed Landscaping Contractor. Before hiring any contractor, check the status of their license. Depending on where you live, a Timber Operator licensed by CalFire may be able to remove the trees.


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