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About California’s Dead Trees

About California’s Dead Trees


Trees die when things go boom

In June 1908, a meteor exploded over the Tunguska region of Russia, killing an estimated 80 million trees.

In May of 1980, Mt. St. Helens in Washington state violently erupted, killing an estimated three million trees.

Trees also die when things don’t go boom

Those are astounding numbers. As humans, it’s almost impossible for us to wrap our minds around numbers of this magnitude. In daily life, these huge numbers typically have very little practical meaning. But give it a try, because this next number is a warning in the here and now.

One hundred and two million trees now stand dead in forests across California.

By comparison with Tunguska–which flattened 770 square miles of trees–the dead California trees would cover the equivalent of 980 square miles if they were all together. That’s an area almost the size of Rhode Island.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Then consider that right now, the news is that a conflagration of fires is sweeping across Tennessee. Nothing went ‘boom’ there. Human action, either malicious or otherwise, combined with drought and unseasonably warm weather set the stage for the tragedy. As of this writing, 15,000 acres have been burned–tragic in itself, but compare that to a fire the equivalent of 980 square miles. That’s what California could–and probably will–face in the coming years.

California and Tennessee? They’re only two states out of 50. You can see from US Drought Monitor map that there are several states suffering what is considered ‘exceptional drought’–California and Tennessee among them, but also Alabama and Georgia. One notch lower, impacted states then include Mississippi, Kentucky, AND New Jersey & Massachusetts (!).

So let that sink in too. And as you can see from the map, drought in various levels of severity extend across a majority of the land area of the U.S. If you don’t want to be affected by drought, you’re probably out of luck.

What that means for EDM

Successful emergency and disaster management has always revolved around a few core capabilities. These would include: accurate forecasting; timely mitigation; stockpiling of adequate resources; trained personnel supplemented by capable volunteers; the political will to help fellow citizens; and so on.

We appear to be entering a circumstance and time period where these capabilities will be stressed and severely tested.

Everyone will have a role to play–already does have a role to play. At the most basic level, the practice of EDM is mothers & fathers protecting their children. Then, up the scale, it’s fire and police professionals protecting the public; county and state managers enacting preparation and mitigation projects; federal officials ensuring budgetary and logistical resources are in place and ready to go.

With regard to the five EDM roles:

  • Planning: Use the best available forecasts to guide your actions. Don’t let political posturing or denial impact anything you do. Build a comprehensive plan: band-aid fixes are not going to solve the problem of drought. Stockpile adequate resources. Conduct adequate training.
  • Mitigation: Carefully and responsibly cut down the dead trees and remove them as a fuel source. There are both forest health benefits and economic benefits to doing this, so make it a priority.
  • Response: Utilize all resources. Save all the lives and property that you can. The response function is the one that we do best, and so far, it’s hard to see ways to improve it. Maybe you can see things that I don’t, so put some effort into that.
  • Recovery: Recover smartly. If a fire has swept through the same area more than once, then stop building houses there. In recovery, insurance companies are your greatest asset. If they tell you: ‘if you rebuild here, the premium will be $20,000, but if you rebuild over there, then the premium will be $2,000’–believe them. They’re (mostly) immune to politics and philosophical yearnings, and they understand risk.
  • Adaptation: Acknowledge reality. Human-caused climate change is real, it causes impacts in the here and now, and it’s not going away. Drought is not going away. Trees will continue to die en mass until a new equilibrium is achieved. And it’s unlikely to be an equilibrium that we like, but it’s going to be an equilibrium that we’re going to have to live with. If we want to live.

Challenges are many, but nonetheless they can be dealt with in the same way the old adage talks about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. So let’s get started.

Photo Credit: Photo by Eric Guinther / CC BY-SA 3.0

American Military University


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