Milky-white sap bleeds from the ponderosa pine, oozing in globs from old woodpecker-gouged holes and tiny bores left by western pine bark beetles.
The pine’s needles have lost their vibrant green, fading to a fatigued olive. The sap, the tree’s natural defense against beetles, has been overcome by the sheer number of the burrowing insects.
The tree is already dead, says Kern County Fire Department forester Jeff Gletne. It just doesn’t know it yet.
Not far away, along Medicine Bow Court on the shoulder of Bear Mountain west of Tehachapi, the sound of chainsaws and heavy equipment fills the air.
A massive logging effort is underway — a high-speed effort to take down hundreds of dying green trees before their needles turn brown and the bark beetle grubs that are killing them mature, crawl out of their nurseries and take wing to the next tree.
But a win here is, at best, a holding action against an unstoppable tide of dying trees.
Pine forests in Kern County’s mountains are dying, weakened by years of drought and then killed by a massive infestation of bark beetles.
A U.S. Forest Service aerial survey in May found an estimated 27 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada between Shasta and Kern counties in the past year alone. The survey identified 82,000 new acres of dead trees and 2.2 million new, dead trees in Kern. More than 66 million pines are estimated to have died in California in the last few years.
The creature causing all this damage, with an assist from four years of drought, is about the size of a grain of rice.
On Bear Mountain Richard Peters of Witten Logging grabs a rim of bark on a ponderosa pine stacked with scores of others on private property at the end of Medicine Bow Court.
He yanks hard, pulling away a thick chunk of reddish-brown bark.
The underside, where the bark once met the soft-growing cambium layer of the wood, looks like an alien treasure map. Wandering tunnels packed with red boring dust trace their way across the panel.
Small black western pine beetles and their pale white grubs huddle and scurry.
The beetles have been eating trees in these forests for hundreds of years, according to Jeff Gletne, a Kern County Fire Department forester. They eat their way into the tree, lay eggs and deposit a harmful fungus. Usually a healthy tree will fight back the pests, drowning them in sap that pushes the beetle back out of the hole it just made.
Under normal circumstances, only old, weakened, dying trees fall to the beetle.
But four years of drought have turned healthy forests into a sea of weakened trees. Many can’t produce enough sap to defend themselves.
And the western pine beetle, and other beetle species, have thrived.
Gletne said the beetles have grown so numerous, thanks to the glut of available drought-stressed trees, that even healthy trees strengthened by this winter’s respectable rains can’t fight off the onslaught.
Brian Block was wrapping up a contract to take down dying pines and cedars near Greenhorn Mountain and Alta Sierra when the Cedar Fire struck.
It started Wednesday and roared though stands of dead and dying trees, threatening the small enclave of Alta Sierra above Lake Isabella and clawing its way into Tulare County — within a few miles of Sugarloaf Village, Sugarloaf Mountain Park and a number of other small communities.
Block, the ecosystem manager for the U.S. Forest Service’s Kern River Ranger District, has seen tree mortality in the mountains around Alta Sierra grow dramatically in less than a year.
Some clusters of trees are 20 to 30 percent dead trees. Others have seen the number go from something like 15 percent 75 percent dead in just eight months, he said.
When a blaze like the Cedar Fire hits those dead trees, it gets hotter and more dangerous. It throws sparks long distances, launching the fire into unburned areas. It burns green trees more aggressively. And if the trees have fallen to the ground, it can make it almost impossible for hand crews and even bulldozers to cut firelines.
“We can’t do anything but back off a couple ridges” and watch the forest burn, he said.
There is no easy way to stop the beetles or save large swaths of forest.
So people like Gletne and Block protect what small areas they can and clear out dead and dying trees so they don’t become fuel for a wildland firestorm that could sweep through mountain towns and hamlets.
Gletne has spent the summer working with Cal Edison, property owners and a private logging company in Bear Valley to cut down, cut up and move as many dying trees as possible.
Trees have been cut back 200 feet from Deertrail Drive — the only way in and out of the Bear Valley neighborhoods on the mountain. Fallen trees and branches have been cleared from property and the owner of thousands of acres has hired Witten Logging to attack the beetle infestation.
If loggers can drop green trees before they turn red — a sign the beetles are hatching and ready to move to a new tree — they can get ahead of the multiplying pests and end the threat to the estate homes perched here on the shoulder of Bear Mountain.
Block is fighting a similar battle in the forests around Greenhorn Mountain and Alta Sierra.
There are, he said, several phases to Forest Service plans to remove dead and dying trees.
“Our primary concern is to reduce the threat to people,” he said.
That means cutting back trees around roads, homes and power lines so people have a way to get out when a fire threatens.
Then they can cut back trees that might fall on people, homes and cars and clearing fallen trees that would stoke a fire.
So far this summer, Kern County, battered by the Erskine fire, has made a couple of narrow escapes.
At the foot of Bear Mountain, where the foothills roll down into the Central Valley just west of Arvin, a 1,700-acre blackened scar shows where the Deer Fire made its fiery assault on the high country.
It started on July 1 and roared up from the valley grasslands and deep into the oak woodlands above.
More than 1,000 firefighters stopped the blaze before it climbed into the pines.
If they hadn’t it would have been a disaster.
“If it had got up into the pines...,” Gletne said. “The consensus was if they hadn’t stopped it they wouldn’t have stopped it for awhile.”
Some scenarios showed the fire could have burned up over Bear Mountain and down into the heart of Bear Valley Springs, he said.
On Friday morning, the Cedar Fire was burning just over the edge of the ridgeline east of Fred Wiley’s cabin in Sugarloaf Mountain Park.
It wasn’t moving toward the small Tulare County community of summer homes and cabins.
But the three miles of forest between the home Wiley’s family has owned for 60 years and the inferno was filled with dead trees, heavy brush and downed wood.
Wiley, who leads the homeowners’ association, said the community has been preparing for fire for years.
They got approval for a timber harvest plan, thinned the trees aggressively and removed massive piles of fallen limbs, pine needles and other plants from the ground.
Then the drought and bark beetles hit.
Around 30 to 40 of the trees left in Sugarloaf Mountain Park after the thinning have died.
“We were shocked with how many died last winter with snow on the ground,” Wiley said.
But the nearby forest is worse, he said.
The Giant Sequoia National Monument surrounds them on four sides and the trees are so thick in some places that deer can’t move through, Wiley said.
Now, he said, 80 to 90 percent of those trees are dead.
If the Cedar Fire comes over the ridge, all those trees will burn.