Drought creating perfect conditions for dangerous bark beetle

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. (KFSN) -- Communities continue to struggle with dwindling water supplies. Now, the drought is creating perfect conditions for an insect that's threatening trees and people in local mountains.

Bark beetles are smaller than a grain of rice. They're part of a normal ecosystem meant to keep pine tree populations in check. Because of the drought, there are more weaker trees than ever. The bark beetle is thriving in the Sierra Nevadas. Trees are dying by the millions.

"When you have this many dead trees, it becomes a public safety hazard," said U.S. Forest Service entomologist Beverly Bulaon.

Healthy, watered pines can emit a resin called "pitch" that blocks beetles from getting in. Without water, pines can't defend themselves against the beetles. An aerial survey by the U.S. Forest Service in April found millions of dead trees across the state. More than four million dead trees were spotted over 835,000 acres of the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests. It's easy to see the trees make perfect fuel for any fire.

"We burned a cedar tree that had died, it took one match to light that burn pile," said Pinehurst resident Mahalia LoMele.

LoMele has watched the landscape change from green to red and brown behind her Pinehurst home. She's worked to clear out nearby dead trees. Her neighbor has cut down large pine killed by bark beetles. They're worried it's not enough.

"I'm just gonna plan for the worst and hope for the best," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Brent Skaggs.

Chief Skaggs says it's more important than ever for people to clear 100 feet around their homes.

"That gives us a fighting chance because you can envision the house that doesn't have any protection around it at all and we're not going to stop at that house," said Skaggs.

The Forest Service is now working to make public areas like picnic spots and campgrounds along with areas near roads safe. They're using fire crews to clear out trees considered hazardous.

"That is going to be a tiny, tiny fraction of the timber that's dying up there," said Tulare County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Worthley.

Board members plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to ask for even more action.

LoMele doesn't want the whole forest cut down, but she does hope the Forest Service makes the right decisions. She's hoping that what they're doing will be enough to save her home if fire forces her to leave.

If you're heading to the mountains this year, check the areas for dead trees. The Forest Service wants to hear from people if they find problems that need to be looked at.

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