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Drought affecting fall colors, leaf burning

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

As the drought continues to affect water usage in the state, it is also having an impact on the traditional scenery of fall.

Leaves are changing colors, but some underwent the change as early as the beginning of September, nearly a month before the beginning of fall, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Others have fallen from their trees almost as soon as they change color. And some trees may not have enough nutritional reserves to make it through the winter, because of the prolonged drought.

Another issue related to the drought is that the lack of rain is helping to create an ideal situation for Southern Pine Beetles, which can kill any weakened pine tree in which they lay their eggs.

"You're just looking at not as much life coming back in the spring," said Will Wagner, a park ranger at the William H. Reynolds Nature Preserve in Morrow. "One thing dies off, and whatever depends on it for survival is going to suffer as well."

Tree leaves change colors because of the chemicals they contain. The green color seen in the leaves during the spring and summer are caused by chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll fades, yellow and orange colors are revealed.

While mild drought conditions are included in the Georgia Forestry Commission's list of favorable conditions for color change, a prolonged drought -- like the current one afflicting the state -- can hurt the color by starving the trees of the food they need to produce vibrant colors.

"Without water, the trees lack nutrients, without nutrients you don't see as much color in the fall," Wagner said.

Wagner said preserve officials aren't worrying about any particular species of trees at the preserve, yet. He explained that older trees, with deeper root systems, are more likely to survive the drought because they may have nutrients stored up, and have access to deeper sources of ground water.

Juvenile plants, ranging from a few months to 2 years in age, are more at risk, because they don't have the root system needed to survive the conditions.

"We're also seeing some trees where you only get a few days of color before the leaves drop," Wagner said. "It's like you look at them one day and you admire the pretty colors, then you look at them the next day, and it's winter."

The Georgia Forestry Commission is also urging people to check their trees for signs of drought-related damage. The Southern Pine Beetles can kill a tree by laying eggs in it, and bringing fungi with them that plugs the water-conducting tissues of the tree, according to the web site for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.

The beetles go after every type of pine tree available, but tend to prefer loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia, pond and pitch pine trees, according to the Forest Service. The drought attracts pine beetles, because the lack of water weakens a tree, making it easier for the beetle to attack it, and lay its eggs.

In Georgia, more than $246 million worth of pine trees, at an average rate of $7.4 million per year, have been killed by Southern Pine Beetles since 1972, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.

The Forest Service's web site also says the way to check for an infestation is to look for a large amount of reddish sawdust in the bark of the tree. Another sign is a small yellow-white mass of resin, roughly one-fourth to one-half of an inch in diameter, which shows up where the beetle attacked the tree.

If the bark is removed, and the tree has been infested with the beetles, criss-crossing, S-shaped egg galleries will be present. These galleries are the primary way the beetle kills a tree, because the lines of eggs prevent food from being transferred throughout the tree.

As the leaves fall off the trees, potential fire hazards are another issue created by the drought. These leaves can create dry fuel for an accidental fire.

As of Monday, Clayton County was at a 3-plus fire classification, which means there is an "upper high" fire danger, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Capt. Laudry Merkison, a spokesman for the Clayton County Fire Department, said the county has been under a "day-to-day" burn ban since the statewide ban expired on Oct. 1. Residents of the county can call (770) 473-3836, and get a recorded message, which will say whether burning is allowed on that particular day, and what rules must be followed when burning leaves.