Dead Trees Provide Critical Habitat.
They do not Pose the Fire Risk Claimed.
There is a tremendous amount of concern expressed about dead trees by politicians and some fire officials.
Newspaper articles claim that dead oak trees were responsible for the spread of the 2018 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa (they weren't).
California's dead tree mapping program shows large numbers of dead trees in the middle of chaparral where there are no trees (see below).
A USFS official claimed during a Governor's Fire/Climate Change Task Force meeting that there was a hole of dead trees in the Sierra National Forest of several thousand acres, with not one living tree in the area (lots of living trees and new saplings are still growing there).
Dead trees are blamed for the wildfire crisis when dead trees have never contributed to a catastrophic fire in California (see map below).
Newspaper articles blame a century of aggressive fire suppression and "forests thick with spindly trees" for southern California wildfires when forests are nowhere near the fires and past fire suppression is not an issue.
What's going on? Why all the extreme warnings about dead trees when nearly all of California's most devastating fires have little to do with forests?
It is likely that the focus on dead trees is more the result of vested logging interests than anything having to do with human safety. Below we examine the issue of trees (dead and otherwise) in both forests and the chaparral.
Dead Trees have next to Nothing to do with Devastating Wildfires
Update with the 2020 wildfires coming soon. But the basic story remains the same - it's not about dead trees.
Dead tree concentrations from the California State Tree Mortality map with the most devastating wildfires in California. With the exception of the Ferguson Fire where a firefighter was killed from a falling tree branch, all of the most devastating wildfires were far from any significant number of dead trees. Additional information about this map can be found in our article,It's About Flammable Homes, Not Forests.
Dead Trees in the Chaparral?
The image above shows the state's Tree Mortality Viewer analysis of an area in the Cleveland National Forest above Corona, California indicating the presence of 15-40 dead trees per acre (see solid red polygon). Using a mid-range estimate of 25 dead trees, the state indicates there are about 12,000 dead trees in the area. The same area outlined in white is enlarged below.
This is a dense chaparral plant community with a few scattered, healthy oaks, big cone Douglas firs, and a few other tree species in canyon areas. No dead trees are present. Field observations have confirmed the disconnect between the state's dead tree map and what is actually on the ground here. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem. We have found many areas throughout the state where the state map indicates dead trees where there are none.
Celebrating the Unique Trees of the Chaparral
Rather than worrying about dead trees, let's celebrate some of the special trees that have evolved to survive
the high intensity fires that have shaped the chaparral for millions of years.
The big cone Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) is typically found in steep canyons surrounded by chaparral. They are one of the few conifers that can resprout and it does so from nearly every branch after a fire.
The gray pine (Pinus sabiniana) is found in central and northern California deeply embedded in the chaparral.
The Tecate cypress (Hesperocyparis forbesii) is endemic to the chaparral in southern California. It is becoming increasingly rare due to human-caused wildfires.
Close up, the big cone Douglas fir looks like a sparse, giant Christmas tree with long, skinny branches.
The Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri) is serotinus when it appears in the chaparral, meaning its cones generally do not open until heated by a fire. In forests, the Coulter pine has cones that open every year.
The Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) is found in two places on earth - in San Diego and Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. The individuals on the Island are shorter and more stouter.