18 million trees just died in California, continuing worries of major wildfires yet to come

An estimated 18 million trees have died in California wildlands and private property in the past year, many of them victim of recent droughts and bark beetle infestations, the latest federal tree mortality count has found.

In total, an estimate 147 million trees, many Sierra conifers, have died in California since the start of the state’s drought years in 2010.

The death toll comes as the state struggles with an elevated fire risk, some of it fueled by unhealthy forests. The last two years have seen some of the most devastating wildfires in state history, including November’s Camp Fire in Paradise, triggering calls from the Trump administration for more thinning of California forests.

In a statement Monday, Randy Moore of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, who oversees federal forests in California, said his agency is working on “increasing the pace and scale of ecological restoration – this includes thinning dense areas to promote healthy forests that are more resilient to wildfires, drought and bark beetle outbreaks.”

The USDA reports it and state officials have felled 1.5 million dead trees since 2016, focusing on the trees that pose the highest fire hazards.

The Forest Service reports it restored an estimated 300,000 acres in 2018, including 63,000 acres of prescribed burns, the highest numbers since the federal government institute its National Fire Plan in 2001, an effort to better manage federal lands to reduce fire danger.

The latest tree death numbers are lower than in previous years, offering a dose of encouragement to state and federal forest officials.

“It is encouraging that the rate of mortality slowed in 2018,” Cal Fire director Thom Porter said in a press statement Monday. “However, 18 million trees are an indication that the forests of California are still under significant stress. The stress of drought, insects, disease, and prolific wildfire will continue to challenge the resilience of the state’s forests.”

Porter said the state “will continue to increase the pace and scale of fuels and forest management project work and grants.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a $1 billion forest management plan over the next five years.

The health effects of drought have hit hardest on the west slope of the southern Sierra Nevada, officials said, but the effects also are being felt throughout the range, including at high elevations.

Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.