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California’s Trees Struggle to Survive Against Unprecedented Die-Off

California is home to the tallest and oldest trees on Earth. The state’s trees are humbling and magnificent, but they’re also very vulnerable. After five years of drought, trees are struggling to survive against unprecedented die-off.

In Carmel-by-the-Sea, City Forester Mike Branson says removing dead trees has become routine.

“This last couple of years, we’ve lost more trees than I can recall in my career here,” says Branson whose career in Carmel spans nearly four decades.

In a normal year, Branson says his team would remove between 40 and 50 dead trees. Last year, they removed more than 160. And through May of this year, they’ve removed 97.

He attributes at least 80% of the loss to a dwindling water supply. He says the drought has weakened the trees, making them susceptible to disease and bark beetles, or unable to compete for resources.

Statewide, Cal Fire estimates there are 29-million dead trees. It’s a huge jump from the estimated 3-million just two years ago. Last fall, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over what he called, “the worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern history.” He urged communities to remove dead and dying trees for safety purposes.

“In many instances, people will love their trees to death,” says Jonathan Pangburn, a Cal Fire Forester with the San Benito-Monterey unit.   “They will love them so much and be unable to remove a single one that all of them will eventually die if they’re too stressed for resources.”

He says no tree and no part of the state is immune to the drought, but it’s especially bad in southern and central Sierra Nevada.

“It is a shock to go out and see a forest that is normally green look like the fall colors of New England in springtime when it should be all green,” says Pangburn . “Many miles and miles, as far as your eye can see, everything is dead.”

That creates a whole host of problems, including the risk of wildfire. Pangburn says trees are most susceptible to spreading wildfire right after they die, when they’re still holding onto their needles or leaves.

Another risk of dead and dying trees is their potential to fall on something, or someone.   “I’ve seen it -- trees fall on fire department personnel. It is a brutal thing to witness, so the safety component is no joke,” says Pangburn.

With so much loss, replanting is crucial.

Maria Sutherland, the president of Friends of Carmel Forest, spearheads replanting events. She says right now, they’re just playing catch up.

“We’re looking forward to having more proactive maintenance programs where we can predict droughts and natural events, so we are on top of them and ready,” Sutherland says.

She and Mike Branson, along with other city volunteers and employees, replanted three new trees this year at First Murphy Park.

To help with reforestation, Cal Fire also plans on reopening its nursery that shut down a few years ago due to state budget cuts.