Friday, May 20, 2016

The Sierra Nevada Pine Die-Off: Personal Reflections

Dale Matson
All photographs and video taken with Sony RX1R

Click On Photographs To Enlarge
Small Sample Of The Die-off Below Our Property

My wife and I built a cabin 10 years ago on property we have owned for 15 years. During that time we have cut down dead pines, which we also use in our woodstove for winter heating.

The last four years of drought combined with the native bark beetles have created a perfect storm of die-off. The Sierra and Sequoia National Forest areas have particularly been hard hit with millions of standing dead conifers as potential fuel for massive wildfires. I have noticed this die-off especially at the 4,000’ to 5,000’ elevations, which have received much less, rain and little snow during the four years of drought.

The last two years in particular the die off has been very evident and our property has not been spared the ravages of this disaster. Although governor Brown has declared this to be a disaster, no help has been offered to property owners who are faced with the enormous task of removing the dead standing trees. Another problem is that the tree removal companies are overwhelmed with the requests for work from homeowners. I made several phone calls to tree outfits that did not even return my calls.

 Dead Trees By Water Tanks-Second Tank Is Dedicated Fire Tank

I finally got in touch with Will from the Sierra Nevada Tree Service who came out and looked at the dead trees in the developed portion of our seven-acre parcel. My neighbors recommended him. We are in this together and what makes my property safer makes their property safer also.

My chief concern was the cabin area and our water tanks and pressure tank located above the cabin. My concern was twofold. There is the obvious fire danger but also the risk of a dead tree falling on our cabin or tanks. This area was logged years ago so the current trees have been planted and are close together. Many trees are up to 100’ tall and taller. They stand nearly vertical and unless you are a professional logger, it is not a good idea to drop any of these huge trees. Standing dead trees are worse than dead trees on the ground. Crown fires in standing dead trees spread fast and are more difficult to control.

Will agreed to come out and believed he could drop all of the dead trees near my areas of concern in a day’s time. Some trees would just be dropped downhill into the woods, limbed and left to rot. Others would be dropped, limbed and the brush broadcast by the chipper onto the ground. The logs would be stacked away from the structures. Will had 2 loggers with him, a 12” chipper and a skid steer loader on tracks with jaws for picking up the logs.

It was a warm day even at our location, which is about 4,300’ in elevation. They needed to put a rope high in one tree and used a pneumatic gun to send a line high into the tree. They attached a haul line to it and used it to guide the tree down safely. I helped some but worked in other areas mostly by myself. It is simply amazing what young men can accomplish working hard for an entire day. The trees are down, my structures are safer and my neighbors have additional security from fires. This is dangerous work and I am thankful that things went well for the crew.

 Beginning Work


 Working Another Area By Myself

 An Upside: A Better View SSE
 Cleared East Side Of Cabin

 Stacking Dead Logs By Water Tanks

 Removing Dead Trees Along Drive

Two Trees Downed Together

Will told me that the newly dead trees are the safest to work with and that once they have been standing dead for five years, it will not be safe to remove those trees which will be rotten and not dependable to cut.

As I reflect further on this it seems like two of the largest recent wildfires in California, the Rim Fire (Stanislaus National Forest) and the Rough Fire (Sierra National Forest) were on USFS land. To what extent can these fires be attributed to management practices of the USFS? There is an interesting report from congress indicating that the State forests are better managed.



  1. I found your pictures and write up fascinating. When I drive the Sierra foothills and see the mind boggling number of dead trees I wonder how people are dealing with it. Now I know! Thanks.

  2. Carol,
    Thanks for your kind words. There are estimated to be over 20 million dead conifers so far. Governor Brown has declared the dead and dying trees to be an emergency but there are no provisions to assist private landowners.
    It appears that nature is moving toward a climax forest sooner than we expected.