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Napa County declares tree die-off emergency

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Dead trees in the Napa Valley

Dead pine trees have become discolored near a house in Calistoga. Years of drought have put pines in the Napa Valley and across California at higher risk.

Napa County has declared a local state of emergency over conifers that are dying by the thousands in local mountains.

The county wants similar declarations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Biden. That could help the county obtain resources to remove dead and dying trees that could fuel wildfires.

Neighboring Lake County is the most impacted regionally by tree mortality, said Michael Jones of the UC Cooperative Extension. But he expects the problem to increase throughout the North Coast.

Napa County is experiencing significant tree die-offs because of the drought, the emergency declaration said. That's exacerbated because trees stressed by drought and wildfire are ideal hosts for bark beetles.

Though they are only the size of a match head, bark beetles can infest and kill a towering Douglas fir.

The bark beetle infestation that began in Napa County around 2020 is still in its incipient stages, Jones said. A tenfold increase in conifer mortality can be expected over the next year or two.

“The point that I’m really driving home is there is nothing we can do about this at this point,” Jones said. “We’re managing for risks and hazards. The outbreak, the insect activity, the mortality is going to continue. It’s going to get worse.”

Kellie Anderson lives in Angwin in the mountains a few miles northeast of St. Helena. She phoned in public comments to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“I’m standing in the yard in Angwin and I’m looking at 50% tree mortality,” Anderson said. “But I can tell you, much of the Ponderosas and firs that are still hanging in won’t be here next year.”

She praised the county's emergency declaration. Some of her elderly neighbors cannot financially or physically cope with the dead trees on their land. Also, when dead trees are cleared, invasive species such as Scotch broom move in, she said.

Napa County faces its own version of the well-publicized conifer mortality, driven by insects and drought, that has hit the Sierra Nevada and North Coast.

Angwin on the east side of Napa Valley might be a local tree die-off hot spot, but it’s not the only place. Napa Valley is bounded by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west.

“The Mayacamas hillsides are a big concern,” county Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “I don’t think folks understand how threatened (the Mayacamas) are by wildfire because of the diseased and dying trees — not to mention Angwin and the other areas. It’s not just the eastern side of the valley.”

In the short term, the county can remove declining trees to reduce the beetle population, remove and destroy beetle-infested trees, and remove dead trees that can fuel wildfires, Jones said.

“The current infestation is going to run its course,” he said, adding outbreaks eventually end because of such factors as predator populations catching up to the beetles.

Long-term, the county needs to maintain healthy forests, doing such things as creating stands with fewer, bigger trees that face less stress and resource competition, he said.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed the emergency declaration asking for state and federal help to do this type of work. Napa County followed Lake County, which in May declared a tree mortality emergency.

David Lewis, director for UC Cooperative Extension offices in Napa and Marin counties, told supervisors the declaration "really is that next critical step for management and action planning.”

Jones praised Napa County for declaring the tree mortality state of emergency and said that step will raise awareness in such places as Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

“It’s going to be a regional effort,” he told supervisors. “I think it’s going to be really valuable that you are all working together.”

The city of Napa's Timberhill Park off of Timberhill Lane on the western edge of Brown Valley is a hike with Bay Area and Napa Valley views.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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