Since 2010, 66 million trees have died in California's Sierra Nevada forests, due to drought, bark beetle, and high temperatures.
Officials have been flying overheard to assess the damage, and have spotted rows of dead trees the color of rust covering large swathes of land. During the last count in October, there were 40 million dead trees, The Associated Press reports, with the mortality from Tuolumne to Kern countries increased by 65 percent.
The Forest Service says it has cut down 77,000 trees along roads and near homes and campgrounds, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared an emergency in October and created a task force to figure out faster ways to remove the trees. Firefighters fear that the trees will serve as fuel for wildfires, and with California now in its fifth year of drought, the trees are drier than ever and more vulnerable to attack by bark beetles. "Tree die-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country."