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.