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An ice storm hit the Austin area the week of Jan. 30. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost power as ice-covered trees toppled power lines across the city.

After the winter storm, oak wilt may kill Austin trees. Here’s how to stop its spread.

A pedestrian walks her dog around a fallen tree branch as a winter storm descended on Austin.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Last week's ice storm damaged trees across Austin. Now, experts are worried about oak wilt.

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The ice storm that swept through Austin this month damaged trees more than any other in recent memory. Now, some face another threat that's potentially even more destructive: disease.

Oak wilt is a fungus that can weaken and kill all types of oak trees. It is often spread by sap-eating beetles, which are attracted to very fresh cuts on trees.

Fortunately for local trees, these beetles are less active in cold weather. But experts worry they may proliferate as the weather warms and people begin pruning back ice-damaged oaks.

“There is going to be heightened risk as it warms up,” said Karl Flocke, a forester with Texas A&M Forest Service.

The forest service is urging people to postpone unnecessary tree trimming until July, when the risk of oak wilt spread will again diminish.

Experts also say fresh cuts to oaks must be immediately painted over before additional cuts are made. According to the City of Austin: “Any type of paint can mask the smell of a fresh wound from the beetle that can carry oak wilt spores.”

While beetles are a key vector in the spread of oak wilt, they are not the only one.

Arborists recommend washing tree-trimming equipment after use and being cautious about the disposal of oak trimmings.

Once a tree is infected with oak wilt, it can spread the disease to neighboring trees through interconnected root systems. If caught early enough, there are treatments that can help oaks battle back the disease.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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