No more lives lost: 7 things to know about removing hazard trees
The 2020 wildfires left more than 100,000 dead or dying trees in its wake. These trees now tower over some of Oregon’s busiest highways, rural communities, and home sites where wildfire survivors and families are trying to recover and rebuild their lives.
Many groups are working to ensure that Oregon’s next chapter is a safe one, free of natural hazards left from these fires, and one where Oregonians and commerce can move freely and without fear in their communities. Ultimately, we want no more lives lost in the wake of the 2020 wildfires.
Progress is being made every day. Private landowners are working to restore forestlands and properties while also cleaning up the aftermath of the February 2021 ice storms. Utility companies are working to preserve electrical access and threats to powerlines. Local and county governments are providing safe and accessible local and county roads. The U.S. Forest Service and other federal land managers are removing dead or dying trees next to public spaces and on some forest service roads.
And state contract crews are ensuring that no more lives are lost by thoroughly evaluating and removing dead or dying trees along major state highways.
“The devastation of the 2020 wildfires dramatically changed these landscapes and the impact will be felt and visible for decades to come,” said Tony Andersen, strategic communications director for the Debris Management Task Force. “We know that turning a page on this somber chapter is important for everyone, so we are working hard to ensure no more lives are lost by thoroughly assessing which damaged trees pose the most risk to these communities and then removing those near the busiest highways and debris cleanup areas. Both safety and environmental stewardship are guiding all aspects of work in the corridors that many on our crews call home.”
With this work so visible, questions and misinformation have surfaced, and we understand and empathize with the heightened reactions to the dramatic changes these fires have caused. To help provide some clarity on the operation underway, here are seven things to know:
Professional certified arborists and foresters evaluate each individual tree based on detailed criteria for determining which trees pose the greatest threats. Before work began, a set of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-required criteria were drafted using current highway hazard tree procedures, best practices, science and environmental stewardship guidelines. These criteria outline all of the items that must be assessed to determine if a fire-impacted tree is dead or dying or ultimately a hazard to these areas. Details like distance from roadways and home sites, the structural and root integrity of the tree, probability of dying in a three- to five-year timeframe if it is not already determined dead, and other in-depth details of each individual tree are thoroughly evaluated. This information is then recorded and stored in a database before potentially being marked for removal.
A variety of accountability and quality control measures are in place to ensure this work is done right. As Oregonians, we love our trees. As such, we are taking great strides to ensure no more trees are removed than what is absolutely necessary to keep Oregon communities safe. Three different teams, paid hourly and not by tree, work together to ensure only trees posing the greatest threats to Oregon travelers, commerce and communities are marked. One team of arborists and foresters takes a first review of a stand of dead or dying trees, while a second team then follows to review their work. A third team—an independent monitoring firm acting as inspectors—then triple-checks this work to ensure accuracy and alignment with FEMA-required criteria. After this series of evaluation and peer review, trees deemed a hazard are marked. Then, independent and separate of the arborist/forester review process, often locally hired tree removal contractors follow and remove the marked trees. Tree cutting contractors who remove unmarked dead trees can face a $2,000 fine per tree, and anyone found not following the detailed hazard tree criteria may face termination.
Contracted arborists and foresters bring extensive expertise and experience with Pacific Northwest tree knowledge and wildfire impacts. The arborists and foresters performing this work are required to be certified and professional experts in the field of tree identification and evaluation. To get the job, a set of qualifications is required that includes education, experience, testing and general expertise with the science and process of hazard tree removal.
Distinct, separate duties between those marking the trees and those who remove them helps ensure accountability and quality. The arborist/forester assessment and evaluation process happen separately from the tree cutting and removal process. Arborists and foresters are paid hourly to ensure that they focus on performing a thorough evaluation process. Then, independent tree management companies cut and remove trees as a separate operation. Each team has separate contracts and arborists and foresters are not incentivized to mark any unnecessary trees. In fact, removing non-hazard trees can carry a fine.
Fallen and removed trees are used in a variety of ways as we partner with local watershed and conservation organizations. Because this work has not generated any revenue thus far, we’re finding ways to work with local communities and give back where possible. Removed trees are ultimately owned by the landowner or land manager where they were located, so once trees are cut, we work to find ways to put them to use. Some trees are left as habitat trees as other local, state and federal agencies plan for restoration and reforestation efforts. Other logs are chipped and placed on the ground for erosion control. Others may be donated to local watershed and conservation groups for stream enhancement projects and other conservation projects. Still others are stacked in staging areas to determine future use by the landowners.
All of this work is rooted and guided by an Environmental Protection Plan, with coordination and oversight by local, state and federal regulatory partners. Throughout, this work is guided by collaboration with local, state, and federal environmental and land management agencies. All work is guided by detailed work plans that aim to mitigate the destruction of the 2020 wildfires while finding opportunities for growth and restoration.
As work has evolved and progressed, crews have a much better view of the landscape three months into operations. As a result of this, the total number of estimated hazard trees will likely be fewer than originally anticipated. Due to the management activity underway and accomplished in these corridors by a range of partners and jurisdictions, the total number of estimated hazard trees will likely decrease since this work launched in earnest in December 2020.
“At the end of the day, when we refer to safety, we’re speaking to our role of providing these fire-impacted communities one less thing to worry about,” said Andersen. “When we say safety, we’re hoping that we can provide peace of mind so that these communities can travel and rebuild with confidence. We want Oregonians to be able to drive to their neighbor’s house for a safe visit. We want those starting new lives to not have to worry about threats to their families while they rebuild their homes. And we want commerce and tourism to be able to thrive in these areas once again.”