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Crews to check for oak disease

12 June 2004

By Thomas Schultz

Agriculture investigators plan to check portions of Carpinteria and Goleta for any sign of the dreaded "sudden oak death" disease, a fungal infection that has decimated susceptible plants across some Northern California counties.

Authorities are taking precautions following the discovery of a total of three infected camellia plants at one Goleta and one Carpinteria nursery in a round of statewide tests that began in March.

However, "there is no sudden oak death in Santa Barbara County that we are aware of," Guy Tingos, deputy county agriculture commissioner, said Friday. "It's not like the disease is here.

"They were plants that had come from an infected nursery down south. Somebody shipped some plants up here that had the disease."

The infected plants were discovered among hundreds of healthy samples drawn from Santa Barbara County. No more results from the round of tests are pending.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are expected to survey a three-kilometer area surrounding each of the two affected local nurseries, which Mr. Tingos declined to identify. Sudden death spores can become airborne. They attack roots through soil, then infect the trunks of trees.

It remained unclear when the investigators will arrive he said, adding they plan to move northward from the San Diego region. Inspectors from the program could not be reached.

The disease is unlikely to be widespread if found at all in Santa Barbara County, particularly outside a nursery setting, said Katie Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the California Oak Mortality Task Force. The organization considers Santa Barbara County at a "low" or "very low" risk for the disease.

Little is known about the origins of "sudden oak death," or Phytophthora ramorum, identified in 2000 after large numbers of trees began to die in Marin, Santa Cruz and other counties.

States across the country grew increasingly wary of importing California commercial plants following the March discovery of infected products at one nursery in Los Angeles and another in San Diego County.

To date, 13 counties in the state have been touched by the scourge in wild, or non-nursery, settings. Those counties form a contiguous swath from Humboldt to Monterey. Trees in Curry County in Oregon also have been affected, but to a smaller degree, enabling officials there to embark on a "slash and burn" effort to halt the spread.

Officials have discovered the disease in host plants sold in more than 38 nurseries in more than 10 California counties.

Some trees can resist the attack, including valley and blue oaks. Others -- such as the coast live oak, tanbark oak and California buckeye -- typically succumb. The dead wood left can increase fire hazards.

Nobody knows how many coast live oaks or other susceptible trees dot Santa Barbara County.

Some plants, such as the California bay tree, can host the disease but resist it.

A tell-tale sign of infection is fluid similar in appearance to burgundy wine that oozes from bark. The leaves of an infected tree turn an orange-brown color but do not fall.