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Emergency Declared As Drought Kills Millions Of California Trees

"Epidemic infestations" of bark beetles have killed an estimated 22 million trees in the Golden State so far, and it could get worse.

Posted on October 30, 2015, at 8:39 p.m. ET

Noah Berger / Reuters

Burned trees are seen near Cobb, California on Sept. 14.

California's extreme drought is gobbling up yet another victim: The state's trees.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over "epidemic infestations" of bark beetles.

The beetles kill the trees, which makes everything from erosion to wildfires worse. Californians even face "safety risks" from falling trees, the governor's office warned.

In a letter to the Department of Agriculture, Brown adds that the state is "facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern history."

Rick Bowmer / AP

Spruce bark beetles are seen in 2009 in Canada.

The drought is creating "a bark beetle piñata."

The insect is native to the western U.S. and feeds on various kinds of trees. Under normal conditions — i.e. when there is plenty of water — the beetles play a natural role in renewing the forest, with tree sap protecting trees from excessive die-offs.

"Essentially, that's their flu shot against the bark beetles," Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told BuzzFeed News.

But in recent years, rising temperatures and prolonged drought have driven the water table down, which has hurt the ability of trees to make sap.

"The sap tap gets turned off," Patzert said. "So then the bark beetles start invading."

Over time, the result is vast swaths of dying trees and conditions that Patzert described as "a bark beetle piñata."

David Mcnew / Getty Images

Dead and dying trees are seen in a forest stressed by drought on May 7 near Frazier Park, California.

The consequences of what's happening now will be long lasting.

This year, Northern California, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest experienced particularly devastating fires seasons, with millions of acres burned and multiple lives lost.

The National Interagency Fire Center / Via

A National Interagency Fire graphic shows that the number of acres burned this year in Northern California — represented by the blue line — far exceeded average and normal conditions, represented by the dotted line and the gray region, respectively.

The drought-related bark beetle infestations make these wildfires worse by creating more dry fuel that builds up over time.

"That's why the fire season has been so horrendous," Patzert said. "All these dead trees burn fast and furious."

In addition to future fires, the drought and related bark beetle problems are pushing healthier forests to higher elevations. Patzert said that while it isn't an "apocalypse," it is a significant change.

David Mcnew / Getty Images

A fire burns near San Andreas, California, on Sept. 13.

Millions upon millions upon millions of trees have been killed so far.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that there are 22 million dead trees in California alone, and a spokesman for the agency told BuzzFeed News that number is likely to rise.

The dead trees are spread out across 45 million acres that the Forest Service has surveyed so far. Across the entire region, that number is likely even higher.

Patzert estimated that there could be 30 million dead trees across the West, and if Canada is included, the estimates become even more alarming.

"Who knows," Patzert said, "maybe it's over a hundred million dead trees."

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