State agricultural inspectors have enacted a quarantine and are going door-to-door in a Hacienda Heights neighborhood in an effort to help save the state's $2-billion citrus industry and beloved backyard fruit trees from a disease that has wreaked havoc in Florida and Brazil.
The sale of citrus trees is banned in a five-mile radius around the Los Angeles County neighborhood where Huanglongbing, or yellow dragon disease, was first detected last week, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The bacterial blight, spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, appeared in California the way experts had long predicted — on one sickly-looking backyard tree with yellowing leaves. The disease was confirmed in a lemon-grapefruit hybrid tree March 30.
"We were waiting for the other shoe to drop, and now it's dropped," said Ted Batkin, president of the Citrus Research Board in Visalia. "We've been expecting it. But still it's a kick in the stomach. I'm reeling. It's real now."
Previously known as greening disease, HLB attacks a tree's vascular system, causing misshapen, bitter fruit before killing the tree. It is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid, a gnat-size flying pest that first appeared on domestic fruit trees in California in 2008.
The discovery in Hacienda Heights is the first confirmed case of the disease in the state. There have been no HLB infections found in any commercial groves.
There is no known cure for HLB. The citrus board has long had a photo of the Asian citrus psyllid on its website labeled with "A Death Sentence for California Citrus."
But citrus board President Batkin said California citrus will survive.
"The bottom line is we're not demigods, but we went to Florida," Batkin said. "We went to Brazil and China and we learned everything we could. This is the fight of our lives, and we've been preparing."
The industry has put more than $50 million into testing and detection. Inspectors regularly walk through commercial groves looking for signs of the disease or the bug. The California Department of Food and Agriculture also has been preparing for the kind of residential inspections the agency began last week, after first suspecting an infection.
Industry leaders are begging homeowners to not move any citrus trees.
"If someone wants to plant a citrus, God bless them," Batkin said of Californians outside the quarantine area. "[But] please make it one from your neighborhood."
The middle-class Hacienda Heights neighborhood where the first infected tree was found has citrus trees in almost every yard, like much of Southern California.
"It's part of the California experience," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the state agriculture department. "At least 50% of homes, and probably many more, have citrus trees. Our residential citrus rivals our commercial groves."
On Tuesday, white trucks marked with the seal of California carried inspectors around Hacienda Heights streets scented by orange trees in blossom. At one of the homes inspectors visited, Jose Anguiano, 76, proudly pointed to an orange tree he's tended for 30 years and a 10-year-old grapefruit tree laden with heavy citrus.
"I take good care of my trees," he said in Spanish. "I'm worried, but they said they would fix this problem." Inspectors said that they found none of the pests on his trees, but that they did find pests on five citrus trees in a neighboring yard.
There are more than 285,000 acres of commercial citrus groves across California, the nation's second-largest citrus grower. About 119,000 of those acres are near Visalia in Tulare County. Growers there walked through their groves Tuesday, joining industry inspectors.
"It's walk and pray," Batkin said.
Officials remained hopeful they could isolate the disease.
"So far it's one tree that we know of, one tree," said Lyle, the agriculture department spokesman. "But if we fail to control the disease, this is the moment we risk losing our citrus industry as we know it and the backyard trees we all love so much."