2) Effective Assessment & Management of Fire Damaged Trees

By Bill Spiewak

With the tragedy of fire comes damage to many trees that beautifully create the urban forest and landscape that make Santa Barbara such a desirable place.  Unfortunately, with emotions from loss of personal property, come decisions that are not necessarily the best choice for the recovery of trees.

Within a few days, the sight and sound of chainsaws and chippers will be a common occurrence as people attempt to clean up damage and move on with their lives.  Yet, the repair of trees that might survive cannot be completed in a day; and to be convinced that it can be done so quickly, is inaccurate advice, especially if a tree is to recover from the effects of fire.

The recovery of trees begins with an assessment of the damage.  Defoliated and charred trees may not be dead at all.  Time provides the opportunity for the telltale signs of the life and death of a tree and how it should be pruned.  In fact, the best response to fire damage takes patience; three years of assessment and management can provide an effective response period that can lead to a significant recovery.

An assessment starts with careful observations, identifying species, cracked limbs, burnt bark and exposed wood.  Irrigating the soil within the drip line is critical to keep moisture in the viable root zone.  Some species do not recover once defoliated such as certain pines and other coniferous trees. Others slowly recover such as our native oaks and sycamore.  Palms may be charred and defoliated, but that hidden bud inside the growing tip may be waiting for improved conditions before it comes into view.

It is evident that some trees have died or their form has been severely altered and their removal can be cleansing.  But other trees in the landscape may warrant prudent consideration, particularly the native trees, which have survived the effects of fire for hundreds of years.  I have observed many native trees on Santa Barbara properties that have recovered and adapted after the Romero, Coyote, Sycamore and Painted Cave fires almost twenty to fifty years ago.

Fire damaged trees should not be pruned immediately.  Wait at least until next spring when new growth can emerge and physiological responses can dictate what is dead or alive.  Trees will show the lines where pruning is warranted.  After new growth emerges in the spring, larger dead limbs will become obvious and should be removed.  The smaller shoots are fragile and should be avoided.  Leaves that sprout on fire damaged trees are critical for the production of food resources that contribute to the recovery process.

A year later, the smaller dead shoots can be removed as the earlier succulent growth matures into more substantial branches.  Finally, after the third spring, it is likely to be time to restore the crown, which includes selective thinning to create a sound framework of branches and eliminate non-contributing growth.  Recovery of fire damaged trees is not problem free.  Structural defects are common due to large columns of decay initiated from the injuries.  These cavities may need to be assessed by a qualified arborist.  Each year, limbs increase in mass and could become hazardous.  Other issues that should be considered include the season for pruning different species, potential insect and disease concerns, and frequency of irrigation.

Yes, the recovery period takes patience and some details have not been included in this brief article, as mentioned above.  But the ultimate reward of the awe-inspiring canopy is truly worthy of the process.


    1. Hal,
      Sorry for the delay. Do not apply anything to the tree. Areas where the bark has burned back to exposed wood will not recover because the live tissue has been cooked. The internal tissues form their own internal boundaries through the CODIT process. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for your inquiry.

  1. I’m concerned about the fire today that started in Camarillo – it went through Sycamore Canyon, our favorite campground. I’m wondering if the sycamore trees are likely to have survived?

    1. Kirsten,
      I am not familiar with the location and the intensity of the fire. The heat is what kills the trees. A fast moving low intensity fire may be less damaging than a fire of longer duration, although that can vary. It is likely that nothing looks the way it did after a fire. If the sycamore was severely burned, it will likely sprout from the stump in a few months. This is good but it could take a long time for it to grow to a large size. I’m sure this is not the answer you were hoping for but after the fire, you can get a better idea of the damage.

  2. The Black Forest, Colorado fire has left many Ponderosa Pines scorched brown in the needles but bark burn was minimal ie: half the tree bark blackened, half on the windward side of the tree is OK. Some trees have some green left at the top of the tree while others are 100% scorched brown. Will any of these survive? Obviously, the ones totally blackened without needles left, are coming down. The forest floor was burned to the dirt. Will chipped material over grass seed help reclaim this area?

    Allan McMullen

    1. Allan,
      I am sorry to hear about all of the damage in your area. In Santa Barbara, I have witnessed more than four big fires over the last 35 years that have been devastating to many people and many trees. Recovery is a long process. I am not an expert on Ponderosa Pine and I would suggest you contact an extension advisor in your area for accurate recommendations. Also avoid opportunist tree trimmers looking to make some quick money until you are sure of your course of action. However, I do believe that trees with partial damage may biologically recover. These trees should show themselves over the next year, at least by next spring. But over time, the structural integrity of the wood of fire damaged trees is likely to degrade. This can result in structurally weak trees posing high risks to underlying people and structures. Each tree is unique and should be assessed as such. Chipped material over grass will help retain moisture in the soil (if you have moisture) which is important. It is likely the soil is extremely dry and irrigating is necessary so live roots can remain turgid. Water will move from regions of greater concentration to lesser. If the soil is moist and the roots are dry, water can move into some of the root membranes and hopefully contribute to survival. Chips can help facilitate that by minimizing the loss of water from the soil surface.
      Good luck,

    1. Ruben,
      It’s been awhile and it is quite sad for the people that lost property and trees. However, trees are renewable and there has been a lot of new growth in the area since the fire.

  3. We have an ecolodge project on Mafia Island, Tanzania, and we noticed that our ( 700! ) palm trees were burned on purpose right at the bottom on one side. Do you have any idea if our palms can be saved? At this moment we see the crowns of several palms fall off…

    1. Ras,
      That sounds pretty bad and I am sorry to hear about this. I am not familiar with your palm species. In my experience here in Santa Barbara, I found some of our palms to respond favorable after the fire, depending on the intensity of the heat. Sometimes the trunks are burned and scarred but the pseudo bark may protect the inside or central cylinder. If the apical bud (the growing point inside the top of the tree) was not too heated, it is possible that new fronds will sprout in a few months, although I do not know your weather pattern. As far as the trunk, if the trees survive, sometimes a brisk brush with water can remove the char. Good luck.

      1. Bill thank you very much for your quick and helpful reply! If the central cylinder is partly burned, would it be possible to remove the charred parts and put somekind of resin? The palms are coconut and some + 100 years so we are eager to save them

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