Blue-stain trim and paneling from beetle-killed trees are dominant design elements in the main dining room at CiBO Famiglia, a farm-to-table Italian restaurant in Twain Harte that opened in September.
There’s an entire wall installation devoted to cross-sections of beetle-killed trees, accented and illuminated by bare-bulb lighting.
Later this summer, lumber cut from more than 100 logs harvested from tree mortality zones in the Twain Harte area will be used to build the temple at this year’s Burning Man gathering in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
In the midst of the dead tree crisis, most harvested, beetle-killed trees are taken to wood yards for chipping and burning at biomass plants like Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station outside Chinese Camp.
But some are finding other uses for wood.
A state of emergency for pervasive tree mortality in Tuolumne County has been in place since September 2015, and since then scientists have estimated there are more than 100 million trees dead in the Sierra Nevada.
Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services projects have removed more than 3,700 trees killed or damaged by infestation so far this year. Pacific Gas & Electric workers and contractors have removed more than 30,000 trees over the past two years from locations in Tuolumne County.
‘We wanted it to feel indigenous’
At CiBO Famiglia, chef-owner Josh Woodall and co-owners Charlene and Mark Pradenas opted to use wood from beetle-killed trees because it fits with their business’ theme of tapping into local resources for everything from milk and eggs to building materials from nearby Sierra Village.
“We have a lot of beetle-killed trees here,” said Woodall, who grew up in Mi-Wuk Village and moved back about four years ago. “We have a whole wall that looks like a stack of wood, 28 feet long and 5 feet tall.”
Most of the interior trim at CiBO Famiglia is made with beetle-killed wood, a mantle is made with beetle-killed wood, and the lounge is trimmed with beetle-killed wood, Woodall said.
“We wanted it to feel indigenous, like when people come here they feel like they’re still in the environment here,” Woodall said Wednesday at CiBO Famiglia. “We want it to feel like the woods and the mountains, so we wanted to use local products as much as we could.”
Woodall said most contractors tell him wood from beetle-killed trees is not as strong as wood from healthy trees. But he believes it’s a one-of-a-kind resource for designers and others who work with wood, for interiors and exteriors.
“It’s great for design aspects with the blueing in it,” Woodall said. “It’s a unique opportunity to create new stuff with a resource we have tons of right now. As a local I think it’s important to use local stuff.”
‘Useful material we’re wasting’
Lee “Tree” Klinger, a scientist working with Burning Man 2017, has written about the ecology of the Burning Man temple planned this year.
“It’’s a tree-to-temple project,” Klinger said in a phone interview Wednesday, speaking from Fairfax in the Bay Area. “These are trees that would not have a constructive purpose other than being chipped and used for fuel, and we’re actually building a substantial structure from them, showing these kinds of trees can be used.”
Burning Man is billed as an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. True to the event’s name, participants at Burning Man burn a wooden effigy of a man every year.
The first Burning Man events, 1986 to 1989, were held at Baker Beach within view of Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Since 1990, Burning Man gatherings have been staged in Black Rock Desert, about 120 miles north of Reno.
The first Burning Man temple was built and burned in the year 2000, and its been done every year since, Klinger said.
The temple at Burning Man is always intended to “honor and foster healing in all who participate and visit” the gathering, Klinger said in a recent essay posted online. This year’s temple is also intended to highlight tree mortality in California, Nevada and Colorado.
“My understanding is the trees we’re using are all ponderosa pines from areas where PG&E is harvesting trees from near power lines,” Klinger said Wednesday. “All the trees are coming from PG&E.”
Klinger, who earned undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado, added, “It’s essential these trees be removed from our forest, because if not they can contribute to catastrophic fires.”
Klinger said he knows it firsthand because he lost his home in Big Sur in the 2013 Pfeiffer Fire that destroyed more than 30 residences and burned more than 900 acres. Severe oak mortality was a factor in the fire, along with decades of aggressive fire suppression.
“You’re never going to stop the fires until you remove those dead trees,” Klinger said. “It’s a huge hazard.”
Klinger, who still lives in Big Sur, said using beetle-killed wood from tree mortality areas in Tuolumne County helps set an example for others seeking ways to reuse and recycle.
“We’re using the wood as structural material, showing the wood can be used for its strength and integrity,” Klinger said. “From the tree to the work site, you can use this material. It’s useful material we’re wasting.”
Staff with PG&E say the idea to use beetle-killed trees for the Burning Man temple came from the group of people who won the bid to design and build it. They reached out to PG&E vegetation management team leaders, said Brandi Merlo, a corporate relations representative for the utility giant.
“They were looking to source wood from the Sierra where bark beetle has had a major impact and caused widespread tree mortality,” Merlo said. “They heard about the work our team was doing, and asked if we could help.”
Most beetle-killed trees from Tuolumne County end up as chips or shavings, Merlo said.
Since the tree mortality crisis began in 2014, statewide Pacific Gas & Electric has removed more than 200,000 dead or dying trees each year that could pose a risk to power lines, Merlo said. The utility has also created a wood management program where PG&E removes logs and limbs for customers in high tree mortality counties, including Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
“Saw logs are delivered to saw mills and log export facilities where possible,” Merlo said. “Other logs suitable for press-board processing are delivered there. Otherwise, debris is being taken to yards where it may be processed into biomass chips, or hauled away for animal bedding shavings, or press-board chips.”
Tracie Riggs, coordinator for Tuolumne County’s Office of Emergency Services, says logs from tree mortality projects go to the wood yard near Chinese Station where they are used as fuel, with a small portion picked up by America Wood Fibers.
“We also gave some of the logs to the Cal Fire Base Camp so they could make snowmen to be sold for the Tree Mortality Assistance Program for seniors,” Riggs said.
Riggs pointed out it’s important to keep in mind that bark beetles cause blue stain in pine, causing some timber companies, including Sierra Pacific Industries, to be “very selective in the amount and type of pine they are accepting from these types of projects.”
For people at CiBO Famiglia and Burning Man, the wood many in the timber industry see as poor quality has relevant, meaningful uses that underscore their messages on the importance of reuse, recycling and sustainability.
“We want to reiterate we’re a local farm-to-table restaurant,” Woodall said. “Most of our food is coming from local farms, most of our furniture is done by local guys. It’s fitting our interior is done with materials from Sierra Village and Mi Wuk.”
This year’s Burning Man gathering is scheduled Aug. 27 to Sept. 4. Organizers hope the temple made with wood from beetle-killed trees will pack a memorable punch.
“The temple has been a space where people can grapple with facing death,” Steve Brummond, one of the leaders of the crew that won the bid to build the temple, told PG&E. “It’s incredibly appropriate this year we’re using the material we are because it represents death in the forest from drought and bark beetle.”