Sonora, CA — Since the last tree mortality inventory federal and state forest and fire officials say millions more trees have succumbed to drought and bark beetles.
Monday, officials shared that since the fall of 2017, an additional 18 million trees, mostly conifers, have died. In total, since the state’s devastating five-year drought began in 2010, an estimated 147 million trees have died across 9.7 million acres of federal, state, local, and private lands in California. The number represents one of the largest tree die-offs in state history.
The water-year that brought the winter rains of 2016-2017 officially ended the drought. However, below-average precipitation that followed in 2017-2018 slowed recovery of surviving trees.
Officials note that dead and dying trees in forested areas are still posing significant hazards to people and critical infrastructure, especially on the west side of the southern Sierra Nevada.
CAL Fire Director Chief Thom Porter notes that while the mortality rate slowed last year, forests are clearly still under significant stress from drought, insects, and disease, bringing an increased risk for prolific wildfires that will continue to challenge forest resiliency.
Working in tandem, federal, state, and local partners estimate they have removed 1.5 million hazard trees, primarily those posing the highest risks to life and property. Focusing on increasing the pace and scale of restoration, management and wildfire prevention efforts, related activities include thinning dense areas to promote healthy forests that are more resilient to wildfires, drought and bark beetle outbreaks. Randy Moore, Regional Forester for the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, reports that foresters completed approximately 313,000 acres of restoration in 2018, of which a record number of acres — some 63,000-plus — were treated with prescribed burns.
In accordance with the state’s 2019 Strategic Fire Plan, Porter says that CAL Fire will continue increasing and expanding fuels and forest management projects and grants. He notes that the Forest Management Task Force, which formed last May, is continuing to coordinate the statewide multi-agency response. Confirming his commitment to forest health, Governor Gavin Newsom last month also included a five-year, $1 billion forest management plan in his 2019-2020 state budget proposal.