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Millions of trees killed by drought and beetle, what's being done?

Forest managers say they're putting a significant amount of money into dealing with the millions of trees killed in the last couple years by drought and the "bark beetle." They are prioritizing the work to deal first with the greatest dangers. And, private property owners are also facing steep costs to deal with hazards posed by the dying trees.

"This year, the Southern Sierra, their latest count is over 100 million dead trees that have been dead due to the drought and the bug infestation," Sequoia National Forest District Ranger Al Watson told Eyewitness News.

He could look out from Highway 155 above Lake Isabella and Wofford Heights, and see large patches of brown pine trees in the forested hillsides.

Watson said the five years of drought have taken a serious toll on forest areas, and it's been getting worse.

"The drought is just another stressor for the trees," Forest Service Ecosystems manager Brian Block said. "You've got drought weakening them because they're fighting for water, and then you have the bugs come, they're more able to take advantage of that situation."

We stood in an area below the community of Alta Sierra, where a number of pines along Highway 155 have orange markings. Block cut into a dead pine to show how the trees try to fight off the bark beetles.

He pointed to "pitch tubes." That's where a tree will send pitch to push out an invading beetle. He found a light-colored blob of pitch, and a beetle in it, which Block described as a pretty big one.

But, he pointed to other tubes, saying they're examples of where a tree lost the battle with a beetle.

In that area along 155, the rangers say Caltrans will cut down the pines marked with orange, because the dead trees are a hazard being so close to the road.

Up in Alta Sierra, crews were taking down dead trees on private property for utility companies. Trees falling into power lines is one hazard from the tree die-off.

On public lands, forest rangers are working first in the areas where dead trees pose the highest dangers.

"Along communities, along major highways, along campgrounds," Watson described. "Sometimes falling and leaving (trees), other times falling and removing trees."

Watson said the first priority is those areas which he called a "strike hazard." The next concern are areas considered to be a fire hazard because of the amount of dead trees, and the fuel that would create in a fire.

And, forest managers say another factor contributing to the tree deaths is simply the number of trees.

"We've been suppressing fires for a long time," Ecosystems Manager Brian Block said. "The people like trees, so we've been letting them grow, and thinking that's great. But, the more trees in here, the more they fight each other for the amount of resources."

Block calls that "tree density," and how can forest managers address that?

"One of the best ways to get rid of these fuels, and get rid of dense stands is to log," he said. He said that can mean thinning certain areas of the forest.

Another way to reduce density, is to allow some wildfires to burn, if it's safe. And, another method is to intentionally set fires in other places.

"We'll have to continue to manage these areas so we don't continue to get this situation back again," Block said. "And one of the best ways to do that is to introduce some prescribed fires into the area."

When wildfires break out in forests with a lot of dead trees, the problems are much worse. That's what they saw in the Sequoia National Forest areas last summer that were blackened by the big Cedar Fire.

Watson said they saw the effects as the blaze hit areas with tree die-off. "It spread the fire more, because it created ember showers," he described.

Watson said the high concern areas in Kern County national forests include around Alta Sierra, Tehachapi and Bear Mountain.

In those areas, private property owners also have to deal with impacts from dead trees.

"We're trying to help out landowners to get rid of dead trees," Kern County Fire Department Forester Jeff Gletne told Eyewitness News. "It's tremendously expensive. It's anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to a couple thousand bucks per tree to have the tree removed."

On private property, the priority is also to take down dead trees that could hit homes, or fall across access roads or utility lines.

But, it's going to add up.

"It's a huge problem, some people have 100 dead trees," Gletne said. "That's $100,000, there's no way they can afford it."

The county fire department has gotten some grants, and property-owners can apply for that funding. Go to the Kern County Fire Department website to see the information, and fill out an application.

Gletne said there are also some cost-sharing programs through the state and federal governments which landowners can apply for. But, it will still be tough for some property owners.

"Some of them, they're spending their whole life savings, trying to get rid of dead trees," he said. "And, now they have a piece of property with no trees."

The Kern County Fire Department is also part of the state's Tree Mortality Task Force. That was set up under a 2015 emergency proclamation by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The task force includes more than 80 state, federal and local agencies, plus participants like utility companies. Ten counties are included its area.

In Kern County, California State University Bakersfield will also have a special panel discussion on dead trees. CSUB officials say that'll be held March 21 in the Student Union multipurpose room at 7 p.m.

The panel will include a number of scientists, and a special art presentation to illustrate the problems.

But, there's also good news after this winter's wet weather.

"That will definitely help." Forest Service Ecosystems Manager Brian Block said. "This snow pack that we're getting has been very good."

The forester from county fire agrees.

"I think that's going to help slow down new mortality, but we still have to deal with the trees that were killed in the last five years," Gletne said. "It's going to be a long term process, but we're going to stay at it hard."

That's how the forest rangers see it, too.

However, Watson said the forests may look different than they have in past years.

"We're actually managing it so that we're sure it is safe for people to come to visit national forests," he said. "That's our goal is to manage it in a way that the public sees as a benefit to the landscape, but we also see as a benefit to the landscape."

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