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Sudden Oak Death researchers seek citizen scientists for upcoming 'blitz'

Greta Mart/KCBX

Sudden oak death is a forest disease that’s killed millions of trees across California and Oregon over the past couple of decades. It’s been progressively colonizing new areas, but an annual citizen scientist effort works to stop it. 

The disease was thought to have spread into San Luis Obispo County in 2016, and it has flourished in Big Sur and other areas of Monterey County for several years. Sudden oak death - or SOD as it’s commonly known - is caused by an invasive pathogen, and like human diseases, the earlier it is detected, the better the chances of survival for affected trees.

Scientist and researcher Dr. Matteo Garbelotto teaches at UC Berkeley's Forest Pathology and Mycology Laband leads annual SOD workshops around the state. Garbelotto says the first way to protect oak trees from SOD is to get rid of any bay laurel trees within 30 feet of oaks.

“Because a bay laurel is a little bit like the mosquito carrying malaria,” Garbelotto said. “And if there is a bay laurel next to your oak, that’s actually the tree that’s going to infect the oak.”

Bay laurels are a native evergreen, and used to be commonly found only along the banks of streams, ponds and other waterways.

“Unfortunately, because of fire exclusion, now bay laurel have become way too abundant,” Garbelotto said.

In an effort to stop the progression of sudden oak death, each spring UC researchers and the U.S. Forest Service hold what’s called a SOD Blitz. They ask the public to attend a workshop slash training session. There they will learn how to identify sudden oak death symptoms. And most importantly to researchers, attendees become citizen scientists who learn how to correctly collect samples over a weekend of fanning out across oak woodland areas.

Once those samples are back at a UC Berkeley lab, they get tested and the info goes into an app that maps areas of sudden oak death presence. Knowing where the disease is, means treatment can happen. Garbelotto says the first step is removing the cause.

“The second step is to apply an environmentally-friendly chemical on the tree that makes the tree more resistant,” Garbelotto said. “Basically it boosts the immune defense of the tree itself.”

There are two upcoming SOD Blitz trainings in San Luis Obispo County. The first is on April 20 at the Atascadero Library; the second is in San Luis Obispo on April 21. All the necessary materials for the surveying blitz will be provided at the trainings. Click here to sign up for the 2018 blitz in San Luis Obispo County.

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