Bark Beetles Killing California Trees

In the San Bernardino mountains, the race is on between chain saws and bark beetles.

The insect's larvae feed on pine trees rendering majestic beauties brown and brittle.

The bark beetle has destroyed 15 million trees over a half-million acres, creating the threat of giant wildfires.

"[There are] lots of dead trees intermingled with homes and communities," says Gene Zimmerman, the U.S. Forest Service's forest supervisor for the San Bernardino Forest. "It's a very unique and very tragic situation really."

Zimmerman has put off his retirement to oversee the job of cutting down dead trees before they burn. It's frustrating work. As soon as loggers clear one area, beetles kill the many of live trees left behind.

Fire Hazard

The infestation, combined with the six years of drought that attracted the beetles, has officials predicting the worst fire conditions in years.

The warnings come as residents are still recovering from last year's fires. The flames wiped out about 1,000 homes in this mountain community but only consumed 7 percent of its dead trees, leaving behind plenty of fuel.

Fire damaged the Altmeyers' property last November. They're not sure what will happen next.

"We've been here almost 30 years," said Cathleen Altmeyer. "To see this beautiful green forest turn to brown is really sad."

Kurt Campbell, owner of the Saddleback Inn, paid $39,000 to remove his 41 pine trees.

"When it all died, it was quite scary," he said.

Now, he's having the stumps carved into works of art, and trying to look on the bright side. Tourism is still vibrant, and scientists predict the bark beetle population will plummet by the end of 2005 — because they'll have nothing left to eat.