The U.S. Forest Service says there are at least 66 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada. The agency blames four consecutive years of severe drought, a "dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures for the historic levels of tree die-off."
California is now in the fifth consecutive year of drought and the acreage burned by wildfires so far in 2016 is about twice the amount compared to this time in 2015, according to Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency.
The Forest Service announced Wednesday that it has identified an additional 26 million dead trees in six counties across 760,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada region of the state. Those trees are in addition to the 40 million trees that died statewide from 2010 to October 2015.
Between 2010 and late 2015, the USFS says, its aerial detection surveys found that 40 million trees died across California - "with nearly three quarters of that total succumbing to drought and insect mortality from September 2014 to October 2015 alone."
The survey identified the approximately 26 million additional dead trees since the last inventory in October 2015. The areas surveyed in May covered six southern Sierra counties including Fresno, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Tulare.
The U.S. Forest Service is removing some of the 66 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada to reduce fuel for wildfires and for road safety. The agency says it has removed 80,000 trees so far. This view is in the Sequoia National Forest. U.S. Forest Service / Courtesy
"It is definitely challenging," says John C. Heil III, with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Vallejo. "Our priority, of course, is going to be safety for our visitors and employees. So the areas that are of concern, near roads for example, we’re going to get those trees removed as soon as possible. And that work has already been going on, we’ve actually removed 80,000 dead trees so far."
The dead trees also are fuel for wildfires.
"Our goal in the future is really to do more thinning projects so we can make the forest more healthy and resilient to these attacks from bark beetles which the four-year drought has really made a significant impact on," says Heil. "So if we’re able to do more thinning projects in the future, that will help to make the forest more resilient and healthy to the attacks and also for wildfires as well."
started staffing up a month earlier than normal to prepare for this summer. The agency says it has already responded to more wildfires so far in 2016 - covering more than 30,000 acres - than in the same period in 2015.
In the past, Cal Fire has said "wildfire season" is year-round, at least in Southern California. This year, fires started in February.
The Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties burned more than 70,000 acres. This view of the fire in September 2015 was taken from an evacuation center off Clinton Road in Amador County. Capital Public Radio / File
"The sheer number of dead trees is hard to imagine, but it’s real and what we have been anticipating for some time now," says Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott. "We must continue our work to remove dead trees around roadways and critical infrastructure, while homeowners remove dead trees around their homes."
The Forest Service says its scientists expect to see "continued elevated levels of tree mortality during 2016 in dense forest stands, stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity."
The USFS plans additional surveys across California throughout the summer and fall.
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