Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/daveynin/26739714880

For more than six years, drought and bark beetles have ravaged California’s forests. Last year, the dead tree count broke 100 million. According to a new analysis from the U.S. Forest Service, it’s now up to 129 million.

On Monday, the Forest Service announced that 27 million trees had died throughout the state since November of last year. The dead trees, which are mostly conifers—including pine, fir, cypress, and spruce—present a serious hazard to people and infrastructure, according to the release, especially in times of rampant wildfires like now. This year was already California’s worst fire season on record before another spate of deadly fires broke out in the southern part of the state last week, including the Thomas Fire, now the fifth largest in the state’s history.

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Randy Moore, with the Forest Service, said in a statement that as the number of dead and dying trees continues to rise, so do risks to communities and firefighters if a fire breaks out in one of the riddled areas. The state’s 129 million dead trees cover some nine million acres—an area bigger than Maryland—mostly in the central and southern Sierra Nevada region.

Moore also said the Forest Service will continue to focus on removing hazardous trees and thinning overly dense forests so they are “healthier and better able to survive stressors like this in the future.”

Finding the funds to accomplish this is a challenge, though. As wildfire seasons grow longer and more severe due to climate change, human activity and poor forest maintenance, the bulk of the Forest Service’s budget is increasingly taken up by front-lines firefighting. That means “funding is shrinking for non-fire programs that protect watersheds and restore forests, making them more resilient to wildfire and drought,” according to Moore.

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Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. That number that is anticipated to rise to 67 percent by 2025 if nothing changes.

Politicians have been wrangling over how to alleviate this growing burden for years. Back in 2014, former President Obama called for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. This would allow the Forest Service to avoid using their mitigation and prevention budget to pay for the costs of massive western fires.

Currently, two different bills to address the crisis are slowly winding their way through Congress. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, supported by many western senators, would end “fire borrowing” by funding the largest wildfires from disaster accounts similar to accounts used to fund other natural disasters. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers are pushing a different bill, The Resilient Federal Forests Act, that focuses more on removing regulatory roadblocks and streamlining “the permitting process for management activities such as removing dead and owned timber.”

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When The Resilient Federal Forests Act passed the House in November, The Nature Conservancy came out with a statement against it, saying “it leaves the wildfire funding solution incomplete, and undermines the laws designed to ensure meaningful public input and conserve public resources.”

Something clearly needs to be done. In September, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year exceeded $2 billion—making 2017 the most expensive year on record. He went on to lament the current financial structure.

“We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires,” he said. “It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on.”

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When trees become water-stressed, they have trouble producing the thick resin that helps stave off bark beetles, which have reached epidemic proportions across the West as warmer winters allow their numbers to grow. Since 2000, bark beetles have impacted some 85,000 square miles of forest in the western United States, an area the size of Utah.

The continued devastation of California’s forests this year made it clear that it will take more than a few big rains to reverse the trend. Last winter, California experienced record rains, and the three-year drought state of emergency was declared over in the spring.

Unfortunately, as temperatures continue to rise, trees may a hard time surviving even less extreme droughts than the recent one in California. That’s according to a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, which found that “future temperature increases expected with global change should reduce the duration of drought needed to cause widespread mortality.”

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Henry Adams, a plant biologist at Oklahoma State University and lead author of the paper, told the New York Times that their study found that “if the climate warms a little more, things don’t get a little different, they get very different.”

“You get an acceleration in the rate of mortality,” he said.

Even Los Angeles’ iconic palm trees are feeling the heat of this new normal.

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