Sudden oak death rampant in Sonoma County after two wet winters, raising longterm fire risks

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rejuvenated by two straight wet winters, the insidious pathogen that has killed more than 3 million trees in Central and Northern California in the past two decades reached a record level of infection this year, including major gains in Sonoma County.

The spread of sudden oak death could further transform North Coast forests already ravaged by drought and altered by climate change, increasing their vulnerability to catastrophic fire.

The lethal pathogen is spread largely by wind-blown water droplets and resides in bay laurel trees without harm but can infect and ultimately kill four species of oaks, the fire-resistant native hardwoods that cover coastal ranges and inland valleys and hillsides. Their displacement, in favor of bay trees and conifers, could raise fire risks across the region.

“If you’ve had sudden oak death for 20 years, my guess is the forests will be worse off,” said Matteo Garbelotto, director of the forest pathology and mycology laboratory at UC Berkeley, which oversees the annual sudden oak death survey.

Results of the latest survey showed a 10-fold increase over 2015 — from 3.8 percent to 37 percent this year — in the sudden oak death infection rate in an area that includes Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Petaluma. That level of infection, which stunned researchers, was matched or exceeded in only three other parts of the 17-county survey area.

The infection rate doubled north of Healdsburg and increased slightly less west of Highway 101, where the infection is already rampant in the hills west of Sebastopol.

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