California's Tree Disaster Fuels Burning Man Temple

They say good art is sometimes born out of bad situations.

That theme certainly fits the group of Burning Man artists building the event’s annual Temple with lumber milled from some of the millions of trees felled by bark beetles during California’s prolonged drought.

"It’s about a hundred thousand pounds of wood," said Mark Sinclair, the Temple’s engineer, standing amid a flurry of construction projects in West Oakland. "It’s not structural grade wood but it’s good enough for our purposes."

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area

Cal Fire estimates bark beetles — aided by drought conditions — killed more than 100 million trees in California, leading to a glut of excess logs which have little commercial use except as fuel in power plant fires.

The temple crew was the beneficiary of about 300 logs of Ponderosa Pine cleared by PG&E crews near power lines in Yosemite and donated to the group. The Ponderosa Mill Works in Oakland and Richmond custom milled the logs into 3,000 boards, representing 100,000 board feet.

The beetles, which bore into the trees choking off their water supply, leave behind a blue stain which makes the wood less desirable for commercial use.

"Once a tree is dead it’s actually not suitable for commercial lumber production," Ponderosa Mill Works owner Michael Veneziano said. "It’s either going to get burned for a power plant or it’s going to get ground up and go into the waste stream."

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In a vacant lot in West Oakland, an army of volunteers spent weeks assembling the temple’s structure, which was then taken apart and loaded onto trucks and hauled out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada where the annual festival takes place.

"I think it’s one of the more incredible things about the temple this year...using a material that would otherwise be completely discarded," said temple designer Steve Brummond.

The temple is one of the few repeating structures at Burning Man. It’s a solemn gathering place where people post pictures, notes and mementos in tribute to people who have died. Brummond said this year’s temple will also pay tribute to nature’s cycles.

"It gives almost an outlet for the forests to be remembered and memorialized," Brummond said. "It’s something that a lot of people are aware of and our hope is that by seeing this temple they will ask where this material came from."

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In the past, builders have created the structure out of donated pallets, cutouts from guitar amplifiers and other castoffs.

While the sentiment is for the creators of the temple to make sustainable use of a discarded material, there is the thorny reality that the temple will ultimately be burned at the end of the week-long festival.

"I mean obviously we’re still burning it so we are technically adding carbon dioxide," acknowledged Sinclair. "But this wood would be burned anyway."

The donated wood for the temple represents a tiny splinter of the 100 million trees dead across California’s forests, leaving large swaths of the telltale rust-colored needles across mountaintops. The state’s scant wood mills have been unable to make even a dent in the sheer volume of wood cleared away by work crews.

"You know it’s a shame more of it couldn’t be used," said Veneziano above the din of a saw. "But I think this is a beautiful way to use the wood."

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