A worker in Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park in May cuts the limb off of a pine tree affected by a new pattern of mass tree death. The East Bay Regional Park District received a $10 million appropriation to remove dead and dying trees. Credit: EBRPD

The East Bay Regional Park District has received a $10 million state budget appropriation to reduce the fire risk posed by a worsening pattern of mass tree death. The die-off, first noticed last October, has mostly hit eucalyptus, acacias, pines and bay laurels and has expanded this summer amid an exceptional drought. 

The park district said in early March that 1,001 acres of trees had been impacted, primarily in Reinhardt Redwood, Anthony Chabot and Tilden parks, but now the district estimates that 1,500 acres are affected. EBRPD encompasses about 125,000 acres.

“The minute the weather starts to get warmer and windier, the trees go looking for water in the ground and there isn’t any,” EBRPD Fire Chief Aileen Theile said. 

While sudden tree die-off is affecting woodland throughout the Bay Area, the East Bay Regional Park District was the only park system across the state to receive a direct appropriation for tree removal in the state budget, signed by the governor on Monday. 

The $10 million appropriation, proposed by state Sens. Nancy Skinner and Bob Wieckowski, will be a big boost to the EBRPD. In the past decade, the district had spent a total of $20.5 million on all of its fuel reduction efforts. Theile said the money is “a good start” for a year or two, but if it doesn’t rain this winter, much more will be needed.

Experts say blame for the tree death pattern can likely be placed on climate change-stoked heat waves and on drought stress, which makes trees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. 

Theile said the die-off appears worse in Alameda and Contra Costa counties than in Marin and San Mateo.

“Because the climate is milder on the coast, with higher humidity, the turn in the trees isn’t as extreme,” she said. “Here we see a tree that looks stressed and then a month later, it’s dead. Over there it seems like they’re seeing more trees looking stressed out and dying, but it’s happening kind of in slow motion.”

During fire season, officials say they’re less interested in why trees are dying than in how to fix the public safety issue. 

“Each of these trees to me is basically a gas can with a bunch of Roman candles tied around it,” Nick Luby, the deputy chief of the Oakland Fire Department, said in May. “If one of these trees catches on fire, it’s going to explode, torch up and it’s going to cast embers — depending on the wind — up to a half mile ahead.”

That’s why the park district is working to cut down and remove dead and dying trees — sending out fire engine companies and contractors armed with tree masticators and feller bunchers. Sometimes, Theile said, the job gets finished with goats that “chew up all the detritus that’s left behind.” 

Projects to fell more than 200 trees in Reinhardt Redwood and about 330 pine trees in Miller Knox are currently underway. A project in Tilden will likely be scheduled for the fall. 

While drought has plagued California forests in the past — including a severe drought in the Sierra Nevada that killed 140 million trees from 2012 to 2015 — this tree death pattern is the worst in recent memory in the Bay Area. 

“In my 40-year career with the park district, I’ve never seen the amount of die-off that we’re seeing today,” EBRPD Board President Dee Rosario said this spring. 

The EBRPD also received a $3.5 million appropriation in the state budget for firefighting equipment, which will go in part toward the replacement of the district’s aging helicopter that’s used to drop water on remote wildfires.

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Before joining Berkeleyside as managing editor in April 2021, Zac was editor of the Southwest Journal, a 30,000-circulation biweekly community paper in Minneapolis, MN. While there, he led coverage of...