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Winter 2003/2004
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Bark Beetle Infestation Contributes to Hazardous Mountain Conditions

Five years of drought, which spurred the largest bark beetle infestation in the last 50 years, contributed to hazardous conditions in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. These conditions factored into the recent wildfires in Southern California by creating dry, dead forest areas that served as readily combustible fuel. In addition, the heavily populated Southern California mountains have more than 100 years of fire suppression history that has contributed to the forests becoming overly dense with trees.

Drought caused trees to become weak and unable to produce their normal amount of sap, which serves to protect the amount of damage a bark beetle can inflict. With less sap, trees were more susceptible to the bark beetle, and these factors actually caused a bark beetle population explosion; more bark beetles than ever are preying on trees unable to protect themselves.

The result is nearly a million dead trees in and around the San Bernardino National Forest. Yet, the Old and Grand Prix Fires affected less than 10 percent of the bark beetle infested areas. Although San Bernardino National Forest crews and contractors have been busy since summer 2003 removing trees, many hundreds of acres of dead forest still need to be cleared to help limit and prevent future catastrophe.

To address these and other related issues, Esri helped by establishing a GIS support laboratory to assist the Mountain Area Safety Task Force. One component of this lab is Esri's Center for Innovative Geospatial Technology (CIGT)-Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST) public information Web site (see "GIS Helps Response to Southern California Fires" to learn more about MAST and public information Web sites). The lab provides GIS technology tools and analysis capabilities for forest management and fire mitigation and preparedness, as well as a facility where the MAST organizations can share data and work together.

Advanced Planning Proves Crucial

The MAST group has conducted extensive preparedness planning that was supported through the use of the GIS lab. This advanced planning facilitated the evacuation of tens of thousands of displaced mountain community citizens in a safe, efficient, and orderly manner.

At the height of the recent fires in Southern California, the GIS lab resources were used to support the incident command posts and firefighters in the field and for evacuation and other event-driven public safety decision making. Now that the fires are extinguished, lab resources continue to be applied to long-term dead tree removal and timber management in unburned areas and remain ready for any new fire emergencies that may arise.

In addition to addressing immediate wildfire-related needs, the lab supports vegetation mortality analysis, treatment planning, and other resource management planning needs. Long-term goals include support of a comprehensive multiyear reforestation management plan.

The lab provides CIGT's technical resources for MAST organizations. The technical resources leverage state-of-the-art computer hardware and software, technology and services expertise, and a comprehensive database and common operating environment required to support the technical integration of MAST member agency geographic and related tabular data.

"The lab fosters collaboration at many levels of data management and analysis relative to the emergency conditions in the San Bernardino-San Jacinto Mountain area," says Mike Larrance, a senior consultant at Esri. "The lab and CIGT are providing an institutional crossroad for concerned agencies to come together and leverage their specific and unique knowledge and data in the service of public safety and healthy forests."

Esri, in collaboration with resource management experts and Southern California Edison (the local electric utility), helps provide a priority model to determine treatment areas and their priority based on variables such as vegetation mortality, population, roads, utilities, and other values.

"We perform analysis to fully understand the extent of the dead and dying trees and all the drought-related problems existing in our local forests," says Gerco Hoogeweg, MAST project manager for the lab. "We also want to get an accurate understanding of the progression of the problem that's taking place. This was used for the recent wildfires, and we will continue to refine the database to respond to possible future events."

For more information regarding the dying trees in the San Bernardino National Forest, contact Dave Kehrlein, Esri Professional Services (e-mail: dkehrlein@esri.com, tel.: 909-793-2853, ext. 1-2901).

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