Deadly oak scourge threatens Burlingame Hills trees

When Steve Epstein bought a home in Burlingame Hills three years ago, the giant oak that shaded his deck was a major selling point.

“We called it Ewok Village,” Epstein said of the deck and the tree, which offered privacy on two sides. “It was so private and beautiful and peaceful.”

But not long after Epstein moved into his home, the tree succumbed to sudden oak death, putting him on a quest to eradicate the disease in this densely forested canyon enclave of 426 homes west of Hillsborough. Now president of his neighborhood association, Epstein has set up a unique spraying program to protect Burlingame Hills’ oaks from the deadly disease.

“I can see it coming up the Peninsula, basically,” Epstein said. “We just have to have this out before it becomes an epidemic.”

The disease arrived in the Bay Area 15 years ago on ornamental plants such as rhododendrons, said UC Berkeley sudden oak death expert Matteo Garbelotto. The wind carries it from hosts such as the bay laurel to nearby oaks. He said the Peninsula was infected “fairly severely” by the disease and that last spring’s rainy weather intensified its spread.

“Because the organism likes warmer weather, it really spreads when it rains between late April and June,” Garbelotto said.

San Mateo Agricultural Commissioner Fred Crowder, who said spraying provides some protection, said the disease is prevalent in wildland areas where oaks are mixed in with other types of plants. The streets of Burlingame Hills are lined with dense rows of foliage — including bay laurels — and the highly susceptible coast live oaks are the area’s predominant tree.

Garbelotto said few large owners are working to combat the disease — he listed the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District as an exception — and individual homeowners such as those in Burlingame Hills may be the oaks’ only line of defense.

“It is important to carefully select high value trees and protect them,” he said.

Epstein and a neighbor, Jerry Edelstein, had previously hired an arborist with other neighbors to spray their trees. Edelstein — who also has lost oaks to the disease and has seen other oaks in the canyon suffer the disease’s telltale oozing sores and terminally brown leaves — said Burlingame Hills’ oak canopy is “kind of essential to the character of the neighborhood” for the wildlife it attracts and the privacy it provides.

Through the program, which the association plans to run each year prior to rainy season, Burlingame Hills residents can contract with an arborist to spray their large oak trees for $20 to $29 per tree with a nontoxic mixture of Agri-Fos, a fungicide, and Pentra-Bark, a surfactant that helps the fungicide penetrate tree bark. Smaller trees will be sprayed for free.

Epstein is hopeful that increased awareness and lower spraying costs will serve to protect his neighborhood oaks.

“Fortunately, most of [our trees] are still healthy,” he said. “All we have to do is spray them and they’ll stay alive.”

More information on sudden oak death is available online at SuddenOakDeath.org.

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