(CN) —A lethal combination of drought, sweltering temperatures and a massive bark beetle infestation has destroyed more than 66 million trees in California since 2010, and federal officials warned Wednesday about the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires this summer.
The U.S. National Forest Service said that while the historic tree die-off has been centered on the drought-ridden southern Sierra Nevada region, persistent drought conditions in Northern California will likely begin killing trees in places like Lake Tahoe.
A survey conducted in six southern Sierra counties including Fresno and Tulare, revealed 26 million new dead trees since the last survey taken in October. The total is expected to grow as the forest service has more surveys planned this summer and fall.
The dying forests have created prime fuel for the state’s notorious wildfires and the forest service called on Congress to increase funding to fight the spiking tree-mortality rate and prepare for massive wildfires.
“Unfortunately, unless Congress acts now to address how we pay for firefighting, the Forest Service will not have the resources necessary to address the forest die-off and restore our forests,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Last year, the forest service spent over half its budget preparing for and fighting wildfires. Vilsack urged Congress to start budgeting for wildfires similarly to other natural disasters.
“Forcing the Forest Service to pay for massive wildfire disasters out of its pre-existing fixed budget instead of from an emergency fund like all other natural disasters means there is not enough money left to do the very work that would help restore these high mortality areas. We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” Vilsack said.
The survey comes as California fire crews are battling several large wildfires across the Golden State, including a growing blaze near Los Angeles.
The San Gabriel Complex fire, which started as two separate fires on Monday, has charred more than 5,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest and caused large-scale evacuations in the towns of Duarte and Azusa. As of Thursday morning, the wildfire was 15 percent contained and the cause of the fire is yet to be determined.
Crews are also fighting the Border fire near San Diego and the Sherpa fire near Santa Barbara. According to Cal Fire, state crews have responded to more than 250 fires in the last week.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to address the massive forest die-offs by creating the Tree Mortality Task Force, a program focused on clearing dead trees and stopping the spread of the damaging bark beetles.
Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said his agency is working with the forest service to remove dead trees in 10 different counties, but that residents in fire-prone areas need to be proactive in protecting their home.
“If a wildfire burns in an area with high tree mortality we know that it will burn faster than many residents may be ready for,” Pimlott said in a statement.
The National Forest Service says it has spent more than $32 million in California creating fuel breaks and clearing over 77,000 dead trees.
Vilsack warned that California’s spiking tree-mortality rate could happen in other parts of the country as well.
“While the fire risk is currently the most extreme in California because of the tree mortality, forests across the country are at risk of wildfire and urgently need restoration requiring a massive effort to remove this tinder and improve their health,” he said.
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