Wildfire in California

Fire Suppression Strategies Exacerbate the Drought

Trees confer a variety of benefits on cities and suburban areas; they reduce local temperatures, provide shade and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Given a few basic caveats, such as selecting the right tree species for the available space and planting the trees properly, most tree professionals heartily encourage the planting of more trees near our homes, schools, playgrounds and shopping malls.

Water Wars

Given the “pro tree” attitude of most industry professionals, it is perhaps surprising that many researchers are suggesting that some trees are making the drought worse for us. In fact, they are directly competing with us for that ever-precious resource – fresh water. Many of these species have been finding water in the western United States for far longer than people have been trying to squeak out a living in this arid corner of the world, so we definitely have our work cut out for us.

“But, wait,” you may say, “humans and trees have been coexisting fairly well (at least, from the human perspective) for several decades, and this hasn’t become a problem until recently. What changed?”

To answer that, we must look at both the path water takes en route to our reservoirs, crops and taps, as well as the effects prior environmental management strategies have had on the Sierra Nevada ecosystem.

Forest to Faucet

Much of California’s water supply comes from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As explained by University of California Merced hydrologist Roger Bales in an interview with NPR, the snowpack is responsible for about 60 percent of the state’s consumable water. It falls as snow during the winter, and often coats the region in a 10-foot-thick blanket of fluffy powder. As the snow melts in the spring, it trickles through the substrate, drips into streams and rivers, and pours down the watershed, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, we draw some of this water for our own needs.

Trees of the Sierra Nevadas also draw their share of this melted snow water, by pulling water from the soil via their roots. This process benefits the environment in several ways, such as reducing the amount of runoff water rushing down the mountains, stabilizing the soil, and so on. In fact, we typically embrace the ability of trees to accomplish these tasks and plant them in our cities to do so.

But there is an important distinction: Unlike the trees of the urban forest, who in large part get their water after humans have withdrawn that which is necessary for our own needs, these trees of the Sierra Nevadas get first access to the water. Normally, this is not a big problem, but it looks like we have made a few mistakes, and we are paying the costs now.

Forest Fire Rears Its Head

Fire is a natural component of many Californian ecosystems. It helped shape the individual species native to the land, as well as the ecosystem as a whole. Consider, for example, the acorn-caching habits of scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica), who help to replant the next generation of coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in the ashes of charred landscapes, or the cones of lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), which only open when fires warm the air enough to melt the wax on their cones, thereby releasing the seeds.

These periodic fires kept the forest understories from becoming overcrowded. However, due to the fire suppressive strategies embraced over the last century or so, the forests are becoming very dense. In some places, the forests have grown twice as dense as historical patterns indicate they should.

With twice as many trees wicking moisture from the ground, less water is able to runoff the mountains and into our supply chain. It is important to note that the trees did not cause the drought, and water would be tighter these days anyway. However, with a properly balanced forest, we would certainly have more water.

While no one yet knows exactly how much more runoff water we would have without these excessively dense forest stands, Bales suggests that the number is between 20 percent and 40 percent. Further research is necessary to nail down these figures better, but it is clear that the quantity in question is clearly significant.

Thirsty Trees

The irony of the situation is that in developed, urban or suburban areas, we need trees because they absorb runoff water. Clearly, it is crucial to find a happy medium between our cities, which would benefit from far more trees and canopy cover, and our current forests, many of which are overcrowded.

Fortunately, fire suppression philosophies are changing, and many scientists are looking at ways to thin the forests, thereby allowing more water to find its way down the watershed. However, there are no quick fixes for this particular problem.


Drought and Wildfire

The current Californian drought presents more problems than are apparent at first glance.

In addition to causing problems for farmers, trees and lawns, the drought is that it predisposes the state to more frequent and more intense wildfires.

Not All Forest Fires Are Created Equally

It is important to distinguish between the different types and spreading characteristics of wild fires, as each has a different effect on the forests.

Ground fires are usually of low intensity, and although they can deplete the rich leaf litter and nutrients of the floor, they are not as hazardous to mature trees. Ground fires burn fuels found below the surface litter.

By contrast, surface fires use fuels found on the surface of the ground, including leaf litter, pine needles, bark, twigs, and fallen branches. Surface fires are of higher intensity than ground fires are, yet they are not as intense as crown or canopy fires. Crown fires are incredibly intense, but they typically require strong winds and plenty of fuel to perpetuate.

Forest Fires Are Natural

Wildfire is a natural component of many western ecosystems, and most native plants and trees have evolved mechanisms for perpetuating the species despite the challenge. For example, giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) have evolved thick bark to help protect their trunks from the heat of forest fires.

Other trees, such as Jack pines (Pinus banksiana), have evolved cones that only open and release seeds once they are exposed to the high temperatures of a fire. By releasing their seeds at this time, the seeds find a bare forest floor, which they need not share with competitors. Many other trees, such as coast live oaks, depend in part on the caching habits of jays, squirrels and other creatures to ensure some of their acorns survive fires, and can sprout in the aftermath.

Paying for the Past

One factor that contributes to the danger of wildfires is the fire-suppression strategies of the recent past. Operating under a philosophy to suppress all wildfires, large amounts of fuel accumulated in the forests, as routine, low-intensity fires were not allowed to clear out this dead wood. Accordingly, when a fire does occur, this plentiful fuel can cause the fires to grow in intensity. Rather than a low-intensity ground or surface fire, a raging canopy fire develops, which kills a great number of trees – even those that are adapted to fire. Current strategies seek to allow low-intensity fires to burn in a controlled manner, which may help prevent canopy fires.

Special Species

Some trees are especially problematic during droughts. For example, coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which typically grow in the fog-drenched coastal regions, often go into decline during droughts, and many die. When they do, they increase the chances of a ground fire – which are normally of low intensity – leaping into the canopy, courtesy of the trees’ dead foliage. Of course, many other species can also help fire to ascend into the canopy, but the size of redwoods increases the potential for problems.

Moving Forward

As reported by Time.com, California state officials have already documented more than 120 wildfires on National Forest land.  To help reduce the chances of severe wildfires in the future, the Forest Service is trying to restore the ecological balance of many areas. This includes, among other measures, removing invasive species and planting natives, many of which have evolved various forms of fire resistance.

Most scientists predict droughts to become more severe, more frequent and longer in duration as the Earth’s climate continues to change. These droughts are sure to cause an increase in the frequency of wildfires, while non-native species and past fire management strategies are likely to exacerbate the fires that do begin.

Therefore, while it makes good sense to do what we can on a local level to address these problems, such as thinning overcrowded forests, taking steps to conserve water and planting native species, it is going to require a global effort to address the problems of climate change, and the sequelae that follow.


Tending Trees in Fire-Prone Areas


The distances between trees significantly affects the extent of the damage incurred. Photo Credit: NASA

No matter how natural recurrent fires are, it is hard to appreciate Mother Nature’s majesty while watching your worldly belongings burn to a crisp.

Do not wait idly while politicians and professors debate policies for managing wildfires; instead, take proactive steps to help protect your home and family.

In addition to keeping potential fuels at least 30 feet away from your home, you can employ several strategies that will confer some protection on the trees in your yard. Although it is impossible to shield your home from catastrophic fires, a few techniques and strategies can greatly improve the chances that your trees – and therefore your home – emerge from low-intensity fires unscathed.

Crown Control

Crown raising is the process of removing the lowest limbs of a tree. Although often carried out for aesthetic or logistic reasons (such as to allow access under the tree or improve sight lines), crown raising can help reduce the tree’s risk to fire, as ground-traveling fires will have fewer opportunities to climb into the tree’s crown. For best results, the University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, advises homeowners to raise all crowns a minimum of 15 to 20 feet above the ground. (Glenn Nader, 2007) While the removal of a tree’s bottom limbs may not save it from a high-intensity fire, the lack of bottom limbs may prevent a low-intensity, surface fire from climbing up to the tree’s canopy. It is important to have an ISA-certified arborist perform such tasks, as crown-raising procedures alter the way that trees respond to wind.

Clean the Crowns Regularly

To clean a tree’s crown, arborists remove all of the dead and troublesome branches from the crown. This not only helps to protect the tree from pests and infection, but it helps reduce the amount of fuel in the canopy, which reduces the tree’s risk to fire. Additionally, dead branches represent a safety hazard, and should always be removed when they occur over people or property. Additionally, always be sure to have branches near your home trimmed back at least 10 feet from the roofline and chimney, which will reduce the paths by which the fire can reach your home.

Plant Fire-Resistant Species

Given the right conditions, all plants will burn. However, some trees are more resistant to fire than others are. Whenever possible, use such species around homes and buildings to help reduce the overall risk of fire. In general, broadleaf, deciduous species are superior to evergreen conifers because their leaves (when present) contain more moisture, and they often lack oily and waxy substances, which are often highly flammable. Horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), redbuds (Cercis canadensis), red alder (Alnus rubra), flowering dogwoods (Cornus floridana), river birches (Betula nigra) and many maples (Acer sp.); make excellent choices for fire-prone areas. (Pacific Northwest Extension, 2006) While many of these species are not native to the state, they have a relatively low potential for becoming invasive.

Space Trees Appropriately

Because fire uses branches and vegetation to travel from one tree or plant to the next, tightly clustered trees and shrubs are more susceptible to fire than isolated specimens are. Accordingly, it is important to space your trees well to provide them with the greatest chance of emerging from the fire intact. Pay attention to the spacing between not only the trunks of trees, but – more importantly –  consider the spacing of their canopies. In addition to spacing the trees in the horizontal plane, it is important to space trees and plants vertically as well. For example, a group of shrubs directly under the canopy of a tree may allow the branches of the tree to catch fire as embers rise from the flaming shrubs.

Be Careful with Mulch

While mulch is an important tool for tree care (particularly in drought-prone regions), it represents a fire hazard. Fortunately, many different types of mulch exist, so you can select a variety that is not as likely to burn as some others are. Rocks, gravel and other inorganic mulches will not ignite, yet they will still prevent the soil from drying near the plants roots, so they make excellent choices. By contrast, many organic mulches represent a serious fire hazard. According to a study conducted by the University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension, pine needles, shredded cedar bark and shredded rubber are the most dangerous types of mulch for fire-prone areas. (University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension, 2011)


Glenn Nader, G. N. (2007). Home Landscaping for Fire. University of California, Davis.

Pacific Northwest Extension. (2006). Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes. Pacifi c Northwest Extension.

University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension. (2011). The Combustibility of Landscape Mulches. University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

PacifiCorp Pays for 2009 Sims Creek Fire

A decaying Douglas fir tree fell onto a power line operated by PacifiCorp on June 23, 2009 and started the Sims Creek Fire. The National Forest System owns the land the power lines are on and PacificCorp is required to remove falling limbs and trees, and keep the area around the lines clear. Any resulting damages is to be paid by PacifiCorp. When Forest Service investigators looked at what caused the fire, they found that PacifiCorp had failed to identify as hazardous and remove the 64-foot tree that started the fire.

The fire burned 160 acres in the Klamath National Forest and the cost of the fire (which included suppression and rehabilitation) was $1.22 million. Although PacifiCorp denied liability for the fire, they agreed to pay the entire cost of the fire.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner commented, “Federal public lands are national treasures, and our office will continue to identify those responsible for starting fires and hold them accountable for the damage caused so taxpayers do not have to bear these costs. PacifiCorp took responsibility by fully compensating the United States for all damages without requiring time-consuming and costly litigation.”

The U. S. Attorney’s office has also settled other significant cases this year from national forest injury: $122.5 million with Sierra Pacific and other defendants for the Moonlight Fire, and $29.5 million for the 2004 Freds Fire and the 2004 Sims Fire.

Evergreen Arborists Consultants, Inc. has expert witness experience with property damage and personal injury cases. We have deposition and trial experience working for plaintiff and defense cases on behalf of individuals, insurance companies and public agencies. Please call us today for a consultation.

Living in the Wildland-Urban Interface

Susan and Al Maza live in an area called the “wildland-urban interface” and were serious about making their home as fire-safe as possible. This included building a wrap-around driveway that fire crews could access, and maintaining an area around the house that is free of trees and other fire-fuel. This planning on the Maza’s part allowed firefighters to save their home when the 2010 Cowiche Mill Fire got to within 20 feet of their home.

Experts say many other residents in the wildland-urban interface do not go to the lengths the Mazas did to protect their property. The result: resources in time, money, personnel, and equipment are used to save homes where the value of the resources spent is many times the value of the property. “Politically, no one wants to hear it – but the reality is that there are places we should not be putting people. You own property and you want to build on it…but for your own protection, maybe you shouldn’t be there,” says Jakki McLean, Yakima County’s fire marshal.

The priciest part of fighting large wildfires is defending homes in this wildland-urban interface. Approximately 45 million homes are already in fire-prone forests across the country and by 2030 experts expect the number to rise another 40 percent. Policy is also being driven by the fact that homes are in these areas. Fires that would be better off running their course for the health of the forest are now suppressed. “Only about 2 percent of these (naturally-ignited) fires are allowed to burn now, and the main reason is there are homes in the way,” says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics.


Wildfire Damage

damaged trees

damaged trees

Next year two cousins who accidently started Arizona’s largest wildfire, the Wallow Fire, will start paying restitution with monthly payments. Caleb and David Malboeuf didn’t clear the brush from around their campfire and then left it unattended in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. The brush caught fire and subsequently burned 840 square miles in Arizona and New Mexico.

The payment the cousins will make are for $3.7 million in restitution, with uninsured people who lost property or suffered property damage to receive the first payments. People who had out-of-pocket expenses will be next to receive payments, and lastly, insurance companies – owed nearly $3.4 million. The cousins will probably not pay off their debt in their lifetimes. The blaze destroyed 32 homes, 4 rental cabins, and nearly 10,000 people were forced to evacuate at one point. “That’s a lifetime payment, if you’re just a working man, of $500 and you’re not buying a house, you’re not paying a credit card. I can’t imagine,” said Nutrioso’s postmaster, Stuart Moring,

The Malboeuf’s attorneys suggested the payments during a restitution hearing. Attorney David Derickson said the cousins would be available to talk about their experiences camping, and their missteps, and hopes the U. S. Forest Service and schools will have a use for them.

Evergreen Arborists Consultants, Inc. has expert witness experience with property damage and personal injury cases. We have deposition and trial experience working for plaintiff and defense cases on behalf of individuals, insurance companies and public agencies. Please call us today for a consultation.

Oak Trees Damaged in Fire

Old tree

Old tree

Two oak trees on the Auburn University campus were burned in the early morning hours in November. A video showed the trees rolled with toilet paper and two men passing the trees just before the fire started. A week after the fire, most of the trees’ foliage had browned and begun to fall off. The trees were examined by members of Auburn University’s Trees Task Force and were found to have severe injury and death of most of the rootstalk and rhizomic shoots, damage to the bark of the trees at ground level, leaf scorching, and damage to surrounding trees and shrubs. Because of the timing of the fire, new leaves will probably not form on the tree until next spring.

The trees were already in severe decline due to a case of poisoning last year, and the task force said that the fire would likely further weaken the trees.  “Everyone takes a lot of pride in the oak trees and no one wants to see something like that happen” said Police Capt. Tom Stofer.


The Seedpods of the Invasive Australian Blackwood

The Australian Blackwood (in the Mimosa family) is cultivated in a range from California to Chili, but in most of these areas, the tree has spread further than it was originally intended, making it an invasive species. The dispersal of the seeds of the tree is largely responsible for its ability to spread into new areas. The seedpods are contained in long, thin ribbon-like beans that are coral colored. Once the beans dry, they split and the seeds are projected in many directions.

In both Australia and South Africa, birds are attracted to the reddish-orange seed stalk, called an aril, which they consume – thus dispersing the seed widely throughout the birds’ habitat. South Africa has declared the Australian Blackwood a noxious weed species and has been seeking ways to control it. Presently, it has introduced a seed-feeding weevil to counteract its spread.

Ants are also attracted to the aril because it is rich in protein. The ants eat the arils and discard the seeds – usually in the nest or on a rubbish heap – where they are in a good environment for future germination. They can have a long dormancy. The seed has a hard coating for bushfire germination and may be viable for up to 50 years, while the tree itself has a lifespan of over 100 years, so it can produce many seeds during its lifetime.