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Dead Sierra Nevada trees rise again in Burning Man temple in Black Rock Desert

Revelers attending Burning Man next week will help California dispose of trees killed by a bark beetle infestation in the Sierra Nevada.

More than 100 ponderosa pines felled by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Tuolumne County are being used to build this year’s “temple” — an enormous wooden structure that will be set ablaze at the week-long bacchanal in the Nevada desert.

“Like a phoenix, once majestic ponderosa pine trees, destroyed by drought and bark beetles, will obtain new life in the temple at Burning Man,” the utility company said in a statement.

More than 100 million trees in the Sierra Nevada have died after being weakened by bark beetles and drought.

Firefighters have cleared out swaths of the ailing forest, and so have utilities such as PG&E, whose services are interrupted when branches snap or trees topple and rip down power lines. PG&E prunes or removes about 1.2 million trees each year, the company said.

PG&E donated more than 100 logs earlier this summer to the group of artists and engineers tasked with building this year’s Burning Man temple. Each log measured more than 16 feet long.

The theme of Burning Man this year is “Radical Ritual.” Previous years have included fertility, time, hell, outer space, hope and fear, the American dream and Metropolis.

Michael Veneziano, who owns Ponderosa Mill Works in West Oakland, offered his shop’s cutting and chopping services at a discount to the Burning Man builders. The 51-year-old said he himself is a “burner” who has attended the event for years so he appreciates the significance the display has in the desert celebration.

The logs, along with hundreds of others that were donated, have been cut into 4,000 pieces and are being stacked into a temple structure in the Black Rock Desert.

“People go and they write something on the wall or write a memento saying something to a lost loved one. It’s a kind of place where you can’t go and not be touched by the beauty and sadness that’s on these writings on the wall,” Veneziano said. “If I read too long, I just start crying.”

The temple amasses the mementos and messages all week, before the structure is burned on Sunday night before Labor Day. (A wooden “man” is burned the night before.)

It took up to 200 volunteers thousands of hours to build the temple, and 7,000 volunteers overall to set up the entire pop-up city in Black Rock, said Kim Cook, Burning Man’s director of art and civic engagement.

Burning Man has areas set up for celebration, learning and sharing, she said. The temple specifically is the place for mourning.

“There’s something greatly sad about an infestation of an invasive species that invades our forest,” Cook said of the temple framework’s origins. But “there is something about this loss being retrieved and re-purposed in a place where we acknowledge loss and grief as part of the human condition.”

Veneziano said he plans to have an unofficial wedding ceremony with his fiancée in front of the temple before it’s set ablaze.

“People contribute to this and then watching it burn, it’s sort of this cathartic thing they’re releasing,” Veneziano said. “The man is the symbol, but the temple is the heart.”

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.


UPDATES:

5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from a Burning Man official.

This article was originally published at 3:40 p.m.

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