In One State, Drought Has Led to 'Firmaggedon'

Oregon saw 1.1M acres of dead firs in 2022
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 11, 2022 4:35 PM CST
Oregon Sees Historic Tree Die-Off in 2022
Stock photo of a dry coniferous forest.   (Getty Images/Roman Bjuty)

Drought across the nation, especially in the West, has affected produce, homeowners' water use, and power production. But in Oregon, there's a new problem that's cropped up from the ultra-dry conditions: a historic tree die-off, in which surveyors found 1.1 million acres of dead firs in 2022. That's the most recorded since Pacific Northwest aerial surveys began in 1947, reports NBC News. Researchers say this "firmaggedon" isn't only bad news for the firs, but also a sign that the region's ecosystems could soon be altered as the firs are replaced with trees that are better equipped to deal with the aridity.

"Nature is selecting which trees get to be where during the drought," says Danny DePinte, an aerial survey program manager for the US Forest Service. The overhead surveys are done in a gridlike pattern—akin to mowing the lawn, per Glenn Kohler of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources—to make sure no portions of the forest below are overlooked as the surveyors keep an eye open for conifers that have either shed their needles or turned from green to orange or red. This year's initiative logged 246 hours over Oregon and neighboring Washington state, covering 69 million acres.

The results weren't great for Oregon. "We had never seen anything to this level," DePinte notes. Healthy firs are usually able to fend off bark beetles, tree-chomping caterpillars, and root diseases, but those defenses are worn down when the trees get stressed by such occurrences as wildfires and drought. And at the moment, nearly half of Oregon is experiencing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, per the US Drought Monitor, with the eastern part of the state hit the hardest. DePinte calls this year's die-off "definitely significant, and it's disturbing," per the Oregonian. The USFS plans to continue to study the issue and will soon team with up scientists at Oregon State University to collaborate. (More trees stories.)

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