Flare Up Over Firewood

Buying it where you burn it is harder than you think.


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Quarantines and export prohibitions help control pests.

Chris Duffey

As far as bugs go, the gold-spotted oak borer is a handsome little guy. He has a little pellet-shaped body, about the size of a Benadryl tablet, a flat head that looks like the lid of a garbage can, and six gold spots on his cape-like wings.

Forest managers weren’t much concerned when they first spotted the little beetle in California in 2004. In his native Arizona, he’s no trouble. Yes, he has an appetite for oak leaves, and his mate lays her eggs in the bark of oak trees, and their maggoty-looking kids feast on inner oak-tree parts.

But what of it? No real harm done. They didn’t seem to kill the trees, or even make them sick. They were no more trouble than fleas on a dog.

A few years earlier, not far from where the beetles were found in the hills east of San Diego, oak trees had started dying.

Forest managers blamed it on ongoing drought. But when the rains finally came, the trees kept dying. Eventually, in 2008, researchers realized that the culprit was our little friend: the gold-spotted oak borer. Its larvae were eating so much of the tree cambium, the generative tissue between the bark and the wood, that the trees could not survive.

For reasons not fully understood, possibly a lack of natural enemies, the gold-spotted oak borer—harmless in Arizona—had become a killer in California. As of 2011, the beetle was estimated to have killed 80,000 trees in San Diego County, and last year it was spotted in the next county north, Riverside.

Forest managers have yet to figure out how to control the bug or protect the trees. So, as with most efforts to control invasive species, they have focused on trying to limit the spread.

They are not sure how the gold-spotted oak borer got to California. It may be that California was just the next stop on the species’ natural smorgasbord. But they think it was more likely that the beetle hitched a ride on a piece of firewood.

Firewood, especially if it’s covered with bark, often harbors bugs, from beetle-size to microscopic. “Anytime you have cut wood and you move it, you are going to have pests,” says Don Owen, a forest health specialist with the state Department of Forest and Fire Protection.

Sometimes the bugs are harmless; sometimes not. “I’ve actually seen cases where people have stacked their firewood up against a tree, and the whole tree gets sick from whatever was in the firewood,” Owen says.

To limit disease, government officials regulate the movement of wood in various parts of the United States. To combat the gold-spotted oak borer, they prohibit the export of oak from San Diego County. To limit the spread of sudden oak disease, they quarantine 15 counties, including Alameda. In these counties, a long list of trees and plants—all of which can carry sudden oak disease—cannot be moved out of the quarantine zone unless certified free of pathogens.

The regulations are thought to do a good job at keeping commercial lumber and firewood companies from spreading disease. But that leaves the rest of us to cause trouble: the hundreds of thousands of us who go camping every year or buy firewood from the guy in his pickup truck or go out and cut lumber ourselves. So what should we do?

According to the California Firewood Task Force, you shouldn’t move firewood—and if you do, you shouldn’t move it any further than 50 miles. “Buy it where you burn it” is the group’s slogan. But that’s not so easy to do—even for forest managers.

Take the example of Anthony Chabot Regional Park, high above Castro Valley in the Oakland Hills. For at least 15 years, the park has been buying firewood from Fessenden Firewood in Richmond. The park sells the bundles to campers for $8. The park supervisor, Janet Gomes, likes the company. “They are reliable and low-bid,” Gomes says.

But last year, she started to have misgivings. She called the company and was told the firewood was coming from Red Bluff, which is 200 miles away, far beyond the 50 miles suggested by the Firewood Task Force. Aside from that, she spotted an occasional log from the company that had the telltale “gallery” markings of burrowing insects.

Entomologists will tell you that gallery markings are not usually cause for concern. They are left behind by native bark beetles and woodborers that are drawn to the scent of cut trees like bees to pollen.

But the markings made Gomes nervous. “I already have eucalyptus spore; I already have pine pitch; I already have sudden oak,” she says, using the shorthand for three major tree diseases. “I don’t want any more.”

This made her a fan of a proposal by Treewolf, a private tree-trimming company in Berkeley. The company’s idea was to use wood from Chabot and other East Bay Regional Parks—all within 50 miles—and turn it into firewood for campers.

Everyone agrees there would have been enough wood. The park district chops down thousands of trees yearly to reduce the risk of fires and to make the park safer. Added to that are hundreds of trees felled by winter storms.

Sweetening the pot was Treewolf’s plan to create an internship program with nearby Merritt College and provide jobs for needy youth. Treewolf’s owner, Eric Folmer, proposed the plan in 2012. The park district asked for more details. Last summer, Folmer resubmitted the plan and asked for an answer within four months. He says he set the deadline to avoid being involved in long, drawn-out negotiations. “At a certain point, I have to move on,” he says. “I have a business to run.“

But the park district bureaucracy moved slower than a bark beetle in hardwood, and at the end of four months, Treewolf’s proposal expired. One of the sticking points was the need to set aside a small piece of land for storing and splitting logs, says Mark Ragatz, the district’s parkland unit manager. “To set aside a piece of public property, we have to get approval from the board of directors, and we weren’t able to do that within the four months.”

At this point, Treewolf’s proposal—despite its nice “local-grown” element of district trees burned in district campfires—seems dead. But the district still likes the idea of using its own logs for firewood, Ragatz says. “We think it’s a great policy, if you can do it.”

For now, Chabot Regional Park is probably OK getting its firewood from Fessenden, says Owen, the state forest specialist. “I wouldn’t be too concerned if they are getting their firewood from Red Bluff,” an area free of major tree diseases. (Bruce Fessenden, the company’s owner, confirmed that the firewood does come from the Red Bluff area.)

On the other hand, no one knows where the next devastating tree bug will come from, which is why, experts say, the 50-mile rule still makes sense.

Phytophthora (fi-TOF-thor-ra) ramorum, the funguslike pathogen that causes sudden oak death and has killed 3 million trees in California, first appeared in Marin County in 1995, from a still-unknown source. Chestnut tree blight showed up at the turn of the 20th century on the East Coast; it was thought to have hitched a ride on a Japanese chestnut tree. Chestnuts used to be one of the most common trees in the eastern United States, growing from Maine to Mississippi. But the blight—a fungus—wiped them out.

“People in the East Coast don’t even know what a chestnut tree is anymore.” Owen says. “It no longer exists there. For me, that is a real tragedy.”

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