Aerial survey reveals more than 100 million dead trees in California from drought

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  • Author: Statistics Views (source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • Date: 02 December 2016
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Getty Images

The U.S. Forest Service has identified an additional 36 million dead trees across California since its last aerial survey in May 2016. This brings the total number of dead trees since 2010 to over 102 million on 7.7 million acres of California's drought stricken forests. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees have died, representing more than a 100 percent increase in dead trees across the state from 2015. Millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.

thumbnail image: Aerial survey reveals more than 100 million dead trees in California from drought

With public safety as its most pressing concern, the U.S. Forest Service has committed significant resources to help impacted forests, including reprioritizing $43 million in California in fiscal year 2016 to conduct safety-focused restoration along roads, trails and recreation sites. However, limited resources and a changing climate hamper the Forest Service's ability to address tree mortality in California.

Five consecutive years of severe drought, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to these historic levels of tree die-off. As a result, in October 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the unprecedented tree die-off and formed a Tree Mortality Task Force to help mobilize additional resources for the safe removal of dead and dying trees.

The majority of the 102 million dead trees are located in ten counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region. The Forest Service also identified increasing mortality in the northern part of the state, including Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Lassen counties.

"These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "USDA has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority, but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can't break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel build-ups themselves."

This year, California had a record setting wildfire season, with the Blue Cut fire alone scorching over 30,000 acres and triggering the evacuation of 80,000 people. In the southeastern United States wildfires have burned more than 120,000 acres this fall. The southeast region of the Forest Service is operating at the highest preparedness level, PL 5, reflecting the high level of physical resources and funding devoted to the region. Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service's budget and is anticipated to rise to 67 percent in by 2025.

Forest Service scientists expect to see continued elevated levels of tree mortality during 2017 in dense forest stands, stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity.

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