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The more than 100 million trees that died in California after being weakened by drought and insect infestations have transformed large swaths of the Sierra Nevada into browned-out tree cemeteries. In some areas more than 90 percent of trees are dead.
This week a group of scientists warned in the journal BioScience that the dead trees could produce wildfires on a scale and of an intensity that California has never seen.
Coming in the aftermath of the deadly and destructive fires last year both in wine country and Southern California, the warning is sobering because the scientists say they cannot even calculate the damage the dead-tree fires might cause; it exceeds what their current fire behavior modeling can simulate.
“It’s something that is going to be much more severe,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at Berkeley and the lead author of the study. “You could have higher amounts of embers coming into home areas, starting more fires.”
The authors of the study say the fire risk will ratchet up in the coming years, as the dead trees fall to the forest floor and form a tangled pile of timber resembling something like a giant bonfire.
Why do the researcher says we’ve never seen this before in California?
Mark A. Finney, an expert in fire behavior for the U.S. Forest Service and an author of the study, says California forests are much more vulnerable now because, paradoxically, they have been better protected. In their natural state, forests were regularly thinned by fire but the billions of dollars that the state spends aggressively fighting wildfires and restrictions on logging have allowed forests to accumulate an overload of vegetation.
“We had forests that were very resilient to weather variations and insect disturbances in the past — maintained by frequent fire on the order of every year, or every few years at the most,” Mr. Finney said. By putting out fires, “we’ve changed completely the fire component of these ecosystems,” he said.
How might the dead-tree forests affect California? One of the most striking concerns is the damage the fires might do to watersheds. Intense, hot-burning fires could disrupt forests’ ability to channel water into the Sierra reservoirs that provide cities like San Francisco with drinking water. That’s a scenario that could nudge the state into rethinking its forest management.
(Please note: We regularly highlight articles on news sites that have limited access for nonsubscribers.)
• The Republican tax plan is “the greatest shock to the affordable-housing system since the Great Recession.” [The New York Times]
• California, with its vulnerable Republicans in Congress, is ground zero for the Democratic plan to take back the House. [The New York Times]
• Tronc, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, is investigating allegations of inappropriate behavior by Ross Levinsohn, the newspaper’s chief executive and publisher. National Public Radio has detailed two sexual harassment lawsuits that named Mr. Levinsohn while he worked at Alta Vista and News Corp, as well as complaints from employees who said he fostered a fraternity-like atmosphere. [NPR / Los Angeles Times]
• The Riverside County district attorney, Mike Hestrin, said the case of the 13 malnourished children abused by their parents was one of the most horrific cases of “human depravity” of his career. Many of the children appear to have cognitive deficiencies and show evidence of nerve damage from “extreme and prolonged physical abuse,” he said. None of the siblings, ages 2 to 29, have seen a doctor in four years and they have never seen a dentist. [The New York Times]
• Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned employers he is prepared to seek fines of up to $10,000 if they violate a new state law that prohibits them from giving information on employees to federal authorities. [Los Angeles Times]
• Senate Democrats are questioning the Trump administration’s push for possible criminal charges against local politicians in sanctuary cities. [The New York Times]
• A bill in the State Assembly proposes that Californians experiencing workplace harassment and discrimination could have three years to take legal action instead of the one year, the current law. [Sacramento Bee]
• The slashing of certain deductions in the Republican tax plan has reignited concerns about a potential millionaire exodus. The state’s wealthiest 1 percent pay 48 percent of its income tax, and the departure of just a few families could lead to a noticeable hit to state general fund revenue. [Sacramento Bee]
• The slow rollout of the “Fleet of the Future” for Bay Area commuters starts Friday. BART says that it will begin operating the first 10-car train midday Friday. [KQED]
• It’s a myth that earthquakes are more likely during full moons. [The New York Times]
• Daveed Diggs (of “Hamilton” fame) and Rafael Casal, co-writers and co-stars of the film “Blindspotting,” which premiered on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, based the film on their experiences growing up in Oakland. [Associated Press via Charlotte Observer]
And Finally …
Two state lawmakers from the Los Angeles area introduced a bill this week that would declare surfing the official state sport.
“Nothing represents the California Dream better than surfing — riding the waves and living in harmony with the beautiful beaches and ocean of our Golden State,” Al Muratsuchi, an Assembly member and self-described avid surfer who represents Torrance, said in a statement introducing the bill. Ian Calderon, another surfer-lawmaker, is the bill’s co-sponsor.
The bill raises some questions. How will this go over in Fresno? Or Redding? And isn’t surfing already the de facto state sport? Do we need a law making it official? Tell us what you think at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
California Today goes live at 6 a.m. Pacific time weekdays.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.