VALLEJO (CBS SF) — An additional 27 million trees have died throughout California since November 2016, bringing the total number of trees that have died from drought and bark beetles to an historic 129 million, the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday.
Federal forestry officials said the new die-off mostly were conifers pose a hazard in the central and southern Sierra Nevada.
“The number of dead and dying trees has continued to rise, along with the risks to communities and firefighters if a wildfire breaks out in these areas,” said Randy Moore, Regional Forester of the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region.
“It is apparent from our survey flights this year that California’s trees have not yet recovered from the drought, and remain vulnerable to beetle attacks and increased wildfire threat,” he added.
Moore said a lion share of the Forest Service’s budget is currently being earmarked for battling wildfires. There is not enough money available to thin and remove the dead trees.
“We need to fix how fire suppression is funded,” he said. “Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s national budget. As fire suppression costs continue to grow as a percentage of the Forest Service’s budget, funding is shrinking for non-fire programs.”
Though California received record-breaking rains in the winter of 2016-2017, the effects of five consecutive years of severe drought, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and rising temperatures have led to historic levels of tree die-off.
The Tree Mortality Task Force with support from the Governor’s office and comprised of more than 80 local, state and federal agencies and private utility companies continues to remove hazardous dead trees.
To date, the task force members have collectively felled or removed over 860,000 dead trees; this includes over 480,000 dead trees felled or removed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The task force is using a triage approach to this tree mortality crisis, first focusing on public safety by removing dead and dying trees in high hazard areas.