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Medfly Discovered in Burbank Tree

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the very day they declared victory over the Mediterranean fruit fly this week, agriculture officials discovered one of the notorious pests in an apricot tree in Burbank--the first local catch in nearly two years--and they are stepping up trapping efforts dramatically to determine just how worried they should be.

The timing proved more than a bit embarrassing for medfly project officials, who had lifted the state’s last remaining fruit quarantine Monday and trumpeted their success with a victory statement from Gov. Pete Wilson.

Then that afternoon, word came: A fertile but unmated female fly had been found inside a small, tent-shaped trap at a residence near the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Hollywood Way.

This time, there was no press release.

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“Absolutely perfect timing,” quipped Larry Hawkins, a federal agriculture official who is spokesman for the Cooperative Medfly Project. “Here we worked for nearly two years to eradicate it, we have not had a medfly find [in the Los Angeles Basin] since July 19, 1994, and then we find this one right on the heels of lifting the quarantine.”

Scientists were abuzz with competing theories Wednesday:

The crop-attacking fly had never really left the Los Angeles Basin; it had been eradicated, but a careless traveler recently brought contaminated fruit into the area from overseas; or even that an “ecological terrorist” had planted the fly in the trap to embarrass the state.

“It’s obviously something to worry about--any medfly is something to worry about,” said Roy Cunningham, a Hawaii-based federal entomologist who heads a scientific panel that advises California on the nettlesome issue. “Of course it’s embarrassing [for state and federal agriculture officials], but we need to find out more information.”

For now, the area will remain quarantine-free.

Agriculture officials are drastically expanding the number of flytraps in the area. In the square mile surrounding Monday’s find, the number of traps will increase nearly sevenfold to 100. More traps will also be placed in an 81-square-mile area around the find, bringing the total number of traps to 1,845.

“Nothing’s changed. As it stands right now, we do have a victory over the medfly,” said Sean Walsh, press secretary for Wilson.

Walsh noted that the fly was not mated--an encouraging sign for entomologists tracking its potential spread. “The find clearly raises our attention level, and the governor’s office will ensure that [the state agriculture department] monitors and deploys additional traps in the find area,” Walsh said. “But we are not pushing any panic buttons.”

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Officials in the agriculture industry--free of any medfly quarantines in the state for the first time in years--are clearly nervous about a pest that threatens widespread damage to their crops.

“You’re kidding!” Cherie Watte of the California Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit trade group, said when told by a reporter about this week’s find. “It’s never good news when you hear this. . . . We’ve put tons of money into educational efforts [on transporting fruit], and it’s so disheartening. It’s potentially devastating to everyone.”

If another fly--mated or not--is found during the intensified trapping, agriculture officials envision more severe remedies. Under the existing protocol, they would reimpose a quarantine area restricting fruit, release sterile medflies to try and thwart the spread and possibly begin localized ground-spraying of malathion, Hawkins said.

If a large number of medflies are found, officials would consider dumping malathion from helicopters over affected areas--a measure that has proved controversial over the years.

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James Carey, a UC Davis entomologist on the state’s medfly advisory panel, said this week’s find should help convince policymakers that the fly may be an indefatigable foe, entrenched in the area.

“This [trapping] is very, very significant, and it points up the fact that they did not eradicate these things,” Carey said. Worse yet, he added, it is still “very early” in the medfly’s active season, signaling potentially more problems in the months ahead.

The last medflies found anywhere in California before this week were discovered in Camarillo in late 1994.

In Ventura County, where a quarantine zone around the Camarillo find was lifted in August, agricultural officials said they are relieved that the medfly did not turn up in any of their many citrus and avocado orchards that are critical to the area’s farm-dependent economy.

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“We have a lot to lose,” said the county’s Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner David Buettner. “With a single fly find like that, it is not as disconcerting as if it were several flies or a mated female. . . . But we’re concerned and we will be watching it closely.”

Times staff writer Mary F. Pols in Ventura contributed to this story.


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