Hundreds of Millions of Dead Trees are Seriously Hindering Wildfire Firefighters in California

Firebrains | FireFire
california, wildfire, beetle kill, drought
This series of maps shows the spread of the tree mortality problem in the Sierras over time. Credit US Forest Service

The 2010-2017 drought and bark beetle infestations have killed over 129 million trees in California, and millions more drought-stressed trees are expected to die in the coming years.

The scale of the die-off is unprecedented in the recorded history of California. The majority of these dead trees are located in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. This situation presents two significant problems for firefighters.

The first is that this situation significantly affects the ability of firefighters to stop fires. These dead trees are fuel for the fire and we are seeing unprecedented fire behavior as a result. Standing dead trees are available fuel and we are seeing a more rapid transition from a surface to crown fire with more frequent spotting. As a result, there is a high potential for rapid rates of spread when fuels slope and wind come into alignment. Downed logs create significant hazards as they burn out on steep slopes, break apart, and become large rolling debris that causes the fire to spread.

california, wildfire, beetle kill, drought
The frequency of dead trees in the area of the Lions Fire can be seen in this picture. Credit: Jim Bartlett

The other significant problem for firefighters is in regards to safety. Limbs, tops, and whole trees or groups of trees are susceptible to wind, rotor-wash, retardant and bucket drops, and vibration from equipment or saws, and may break or fall at any time. Trees or limbs, even when green, may fall without any warning and they can knock over other trees, creating a domino effect. Standing dead trees have been observed recently to burn out rapidly and fall. When logs on slopes burn out and break apart and roll downhill they not only can spread the fire but can hit firefighters. As a result, firefighters have to be extra cautious in areas of high mortality. More hazardous conditions result in it taking longer to control fires.

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One thought on “Hundreds of Millions of Dead Trees are Seriously Hindering Wildfire Firefighters in California

  1. Bad Forrest management…. pushed by left wing tree huggers. There should be cattle and sheep going through the forest eating the underbrush and grasses. But hardcore environmentalist groups lobby and push to remove grazing permits from ranchers who are giving us true grass fed animals. Poorly educated, non-common sense, hardcore environmentalists that think rotting beetle ridden trees/forest is better than having smart sensible logging keeping the forest thinned out and fuel managed. The fires will only get worse and worst in our lifetimes if we keep letting these extreme “environmentalist” point of view that no one can touch, or utilize the forest. Talk to the wild lands fire fighters who have to put their lives at risk to battle these blazes. The fuel management is out of control and its captained by hardcore “environmental” groups who have gone too far.

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