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Getting to Root of Rare Wood Fungus

Homes: The orange growth, which quickly eats through walls and floors, devastating houses, has been sprouting up more frequently.

July 26, 1998|DIANE WEDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A fungus is sprouting up around Orange County, snaking around stucco and brick to get to its daily meal--the wood in and around your home.

When the feast is over, once-solid walls and floors are left mushy enough to put a pinky finger through, and once-secure property owners are left scrambling to come up with the thousands of dollars needed to repair the damage.

"I feel like the guys from 'X-Files' are going to come check in. It's like an alien invading," said Carol Conover, whose Corona del Mar home has been infested by the fungus. And she is not alone.

In the last two decades, Meruliaporia incrassata--an orange-colored, mushroom-shaped fungus--has shown up with more frequency in houses from San Diego to Northern California. And because most homeowners, pest control inspectors and contractors are unfamiliar with the unusual growth commonly called poria, the fungus spreads untreated and unchecked through houses big and small, an equal-opportunity menace.

"It's a rare fungus, but it's as common here as anywhere in the world," said UC Riverside plant pathology professor John Menge. "It's also the most devastating wood-decay fungus of houses that we know of."

It sounds like science fiction and looks like it too, but poria, like all decay fungi, is an organism that needs moisture to break down and utilize wood as a food source, according to forest product experts at UC Berkeley.

"The bad news about poria is that it's hidden and it spreads fast, but once you find it, it can be controlled," said Wayne Wilcox, a UC Berkeley forestry professor.

Unlike other decay fungi, which tend to destroy only a 6-inch area around a plumbing leak or wet window sill, poria has the capacity to begin in wet soil--usually under a newly installed patio, new landscaping or a room addition--then travel to dry wood by pumping water through a root-like system. Far from its original water source, the fungus continues to feed on the new supply of wood.

Donna Kingwell, a spokeswoman for the state's Structural Pest Control Board, said the agency "is keenly aware of the potent problems of poria, especially in the southern part of the state."

Conover had lived in her Corona del Mar home for 11 years when she first discovered her poria problem about three years ago. "I had a fungus on a window casing--they said it was dry rot. Then fifteen months later it was coming out of the same window again."

Conover began finding clothes and shoes with the telltale orange markings around the house. She also saw poria in full bloom. "It was pretty much mushroom-like, orange and very, very wet. I said, 'We haven't had any rain since March. How can this be?' "

Before long, Conover said, she and her three children were spending hours at a time scraping away poria with putty knives. The fungus sprouted over the windows, behind the bathroom cabinet, inside the door frames, below the floor and inside the ceiling.

"It got scary when you realized one of the walls that the fungus could get to was a sheer wall," she said. "My children understand that a sheer wall holds up the other wall in an earthquake."

Scarce Information

The area attacked by poria is quickly obliterated, said David Taylor, technical director of the pest control company Antimite in Costa Mesa. "We had a Fullerton customer whose toilet just fell right through the floor," Taylor said. "People get really worried when they see how the wood is destroyed. They kind of freak out on you. After all, their homes are their main investment."

Often the financial frustrations are only the beginning. Finding professionals who are familiar with poria and insurance companies ready to compensate for poria losses can be nearly impossible.

Peter Zappas, a property manager in Laguna Beach whose floor was being devoured by poria, had to wait for a month and a half to meet Luis De La Cruz, a Van Nuys pest control specialist and, according to Wilcox at Berkeley, one of the most knowledgeable inspectors in California about the fungus. "I tried to fix it myself, but it came back again," said Zappas, whose home now has a 2-foot moat circling his back porch as part of the poria removal process. "I have a hole outside. The wood is bad in some areas."

"It's real dangerous," said Steve Soklos, owner and operator of Solo Termite Control Inc., based in Mission Viejo. "At this point it practically takes a specialist to identify and work with it, and there are just a handful of people that know how. Most everybody that I know of here in Orange County doesn't want to go near this one because it's such an aggressive fungus and the smallest strand can regrow."

Kenneth Manesse, Solo's general manager, has taken on the task of learning more about poria's power. "As a general rule we're seeing more of it," Manesse said. "More cases are being reported, and people are getting educated about poria."

For six months, Manesse has been observing the growth patterns of a poria sprig, which he clipped from an infected Laguna Beach house.

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