The Drought’s Latest Victims Are Dying by the Millions

Surveys of California’s national forests show more than 12 million trees have died as a record dry spell continues.

Dead trees stand in a field on April 24 in Fresno, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

May 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

California’s water problem is turning into a tree problem.

Millions of trees—12.5 million so far—are succumbing to the state’s historic lack of water, dying off in droves in national forests across the state, according to the latest aerial survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Most of the dead trees are easily identified by their red hue—atypical for pine trees, which usually don a deep green color year-round.

“Unlike back East, where you have fall colors, here it’s because the trees are dying,” John Miller, a spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest, told the Los Angeles Times.

In its survey, the U.S. Forest Service combed 8.2 million acres of forests between the Sierra Nevada and Southern California and found some 990,000 acres of dead pine and oak trees. A statewide survey is expected later this year.

California, now in its fourth year of drought, is approaching the hot summer months with forests chock-full of dried-out matchsticks—which could mean more, and more intense, wildfires.

“When you start thinking about what it takes for a tree, which is usually a fairly hearty type of plant, to die off, it’s telling you a pretty clear signal of just how intense the drought has been,” Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, told KPBS.

California is relying on forests to store carbon dioxide and help stem climate change. A mass die-off of trees will make that fight even harder. It also means less food and fewer homes for wildlife in the region.

But wait—it gets worse.

Because of the drought, forest areas damaged by previous fires aren’t bouncing back as fast.

Jeffrey Moore, interim aerial survey program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, saw the evidence firsthand, digitally mapping the forests from a fixed-wing aircraft 1,000 feet above the ground.

“Most of those areas aren’t even coming back into trees at all,” Moore told KPBS. “They’re kind of being switched over now into chaparral plants because they burned so hot, the seed source is gone.”

At the end of April, more than 66 percent of the state remained at extreme drought levels.

Drought has ravaged the state’s tree population before. Between 1975 and 1979, around 14 million trees died thanks to drought. But with yet another dry season approaching, the current drought could kill off even more trees.

“The situation is pretty severe,” said Moore.