Unprecedented Number Of Tree Deaths In California Points To A Catastrophic Fire Season

One more horrific prediction has come to pass for California's drought-ravaged forests. According to the US Forest Service, trees are dying at an even more astonishing rate than they were last summer (Australia's winter), creating fuel for what will almost certainly be the worst wildfire season in memory. Trees are dying at a scary rate. (Images: AP Photo/Scott Smith)

Last year, a comprehensive US Forest Service survey estimated that about 40 million trees had been killed in California since the start of the drought in 2010. Now that number has been upped to 66 million total, with about 26 million trees killed over the last eight months. The highest density of tree deaths have been recorded in the Southern Sierras where snowpack is already depleted and the drought remains "exceptional."

Beetles take down trees from the inside

It's not just a lack of water that's killing California's trees. When trees become stressed they're not able to produce the thick resin that keeps out bark beetles, which can consume the tree from the inside out. Even in places with low fire risk, beetle-killed trees can easily topple, poising danger to hikers and campers.

In a statement, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urged for drastic preventative measures. "Tree die-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk," he said. "We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country."

Fire suppression, also called "fuel reduction", is itself a controversial and expensive endeavour. Some California forests plan to use incinerators that will turn the trees into biomass before they become tinder. Beetle-killed pine is also popular for furniture makers.

Fire's a natural part of forest regeneration, of course, but with a fire season that's about 20 per cent longer than it was just 30 years ago, that makes forests much more vulnerable to human-set fires. Case in point, a car crash high in the mountains northeast of LA which is now responsible for burning over 4500 acres.

Smoke from two fires in the LA foothills. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

It's gonna be a long summer.


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