Wildfire, the disaster so many forest owners fear has
happenedto you. Fire may have burned all or just a portion of
your property, over many acres of your land or just your homesite, burned
it completely or only partially. Whatever the circumstances, youre
now left wondering, What should I do now?
After the fire is out, its time to start making
some decisions. Although you may feel that the worst has happened, there
are actions you can take now to protect your property from further impacts
and to recoup some of your losses.
This publication discusses issues property owners should
consider following a wildfire on their property, including how to protect
your valuable property from further damage due to erosion, where to
go for help and financial assistance, how remove or salvage trees that
were lost or damaged, how to claim a casualty loss on your tax return,
and how to recover from wildfire damage to your property.
If you are in need of emergency help, contact the Arizona
Division of Emergency Management (AZ DEM) www.dem.state.az.us or phone
1-800-411-2336 to find out if a local service center for fire victims
has been set up in your area. If a fire is declared a state or federal
disaster, other agencies and organizations may be assisting with the
situation, however AZ DEM is still the agency to contact.
Once the fire is out, the first step is to assess the damage. Recovery actions you may take such as erosion control and replanting depend heavily on the amount of damage caused by the wildfire.
An important determination to make immediately after the fire is out is the intensity at which it burned. While wildfires can be very destructive, in reality, most fires burn at low intensity throughout most of their area, with only occasional pockets of moderate to high intensity burn. Occasionally, fires do burn at high intensity over large areas.
Fires which burn at low intensity do not burn up the forest
canopy. Most leaves or needles remain on trees, even though some may
be brown and the lower branches may be scorched. The ground is still
partially covered by old needles, leaves, and decaying wood.
Low-intensity fires are in the long run, beneficial to maintaining a healthy forest. Infact, many Arizona tree species and plant communities evolved with low-intensity fire as part of the natural system. These fires clear out the underbrush, thin out young trees which may be too numerous, and reduce the amount of fuel accumulating on the forest floor, thereby lessening the chance of future high intensity wildfires (Fig. 1).
Moderate-intensity fires burn into the forest canopy and consume the needles and leaves from many trees but not all. They also consume a portion of the ground cover. Since, moderate-intensity fires typically leave the biggest and most vigorous trees alive, some forest cover will remain (Fig. 2).
High-intensity fires consume from half to all of the forest canopy and everything on the forest floor. The resulting ash is white or gray and offers little protection from rainfall and erosion. Under certain conditions of soil type, fire intensity, and vegetation burned, a water-repellant or hydrophobic layer is formed in the soil that will decrease water infiltration and increase runoff and soil erosion, especially in the first rains following the fire (Fig.3).
Landowners should record the burn intensity of the affected areas on
a map of their property. Even if a majority of the area burned at low
intensity, there may be hot spots with greater destruction
that are important to note on the burn map. Also, forested land may
endure resource impacts even if the fire never actually burns the trees.
The map should also show bulldozer lines and areas where trees were
felled. The burn map can then be used to plan for forest rehabilitation
measures such as erosion control and replanting, if necessary.
The most damaging long-term resource impact that can occur after wildfire
is soil erosion. Erosion robs land of its soil and its ability to grow
vigorous trees. A healthy forest functions to keep soil in place on
the land. The forest canopy intercepts raindrops and reduces their impact
on the soil. Rain which makes it through the canopy is intercepted by
the litter layer which covers the forest floor. Together, the canopy
and litter layer protect the soil by keeping the rain from detaching
soil particles. Without this protection, detached soil particles can
wash down denuded slopes, entering stream channels and reducing water
quality and altering or degrading aquatic habitat.
In addition to protecting soil from the force of rain, a litter layer
functions to help the soil absorb rainwater. In the absence of litter,
rain is more likely to hit the soil surface and run off than infiltrate
into the soil, reaching the stream channels faster, leading to an increase
in the possibility for flooding.
Your burned forest land is at increased risk for soil erosion if:
There are a number of erosion control measures that can be taken to
lower the soil erosion hazard and protect your lands productivity
and water quality during the first few years after a fire. The goal
of these methods is to cover the soil surface to protect it from raindrop
impact, to improve the soils ability to absorb water, and reduce
the amount and speed of overland water flow.
The soil can be covered with a mulch and/or planted or seeded vegetation,
usually a grass that sprouts quickly and has a dense, fibrous root system
to bind the soil. For large areas where covering the soil is not economically
feasible or will not occur quickly enough, the next step is to control
the water running over the soil and carrying the sediment. This can
be accomplished by erecting barriers to runoff which slow and disperse
the water, reducing its erosive power and allowing it to soak in or
settle out sediment before reaching a stream course (Fig. 4). A combination
of measures is recommended when appropriate or feasible. For more specifics
on the soil erosion control measures that follow use the internet URL
links contained in the section titled Links to NRCS Fire Recovery tips
listed at the end of this document.
Slash spreading. Tree limbs and branches can be spread on the
soil to reduce raindrop impact. If branches are cut small enough (slashed)
so that they come in contact with the soil, they will also help disperse
overland water flow and reduce runoff and erosion.
Straw mulching. Straw can be spread over the soil at 2 tons
per acre, about 100 pounds per 1,000 square feet (an average 74-pound
bale will cover 800 square feet). On steep slopes, it helps to punch
in the straw with a long, narrow bladed shovel sometimes called
a transplanting or tile spade. The result should look like the tufts
of a toothbrush. The straw should be certified as noxious-weed
free. Hydromulching uses a machine to blow straw, newspaper, or
other fiber as a slurry onto the soil. This technique is used by the
highway department to stabilize road cuts but is probably infeasible
except where large areas are to be covered.
Seeding. Grass seed can be spread which will sprout quickly
and put down roots to hold the soil. Depending upon the pre-fire vegetation,
the intensity of the fire, and soil disturbance, there may be sufficient
grass and herbaceous plant seed in the soil to germinate and provide
cover. Soil disturbance from the fire suppression effort or salvage
logging will probably remove or bury the native seed and you will have
to apply seed. Although native plant seed is often preferable, it can
be difficult to find in sufficient quantity (especially if the fire
was extensive, thousands of acres) and more expensive.
Priority areas for seeding include the steeper, more erosive slopes.
However, since these slopes are more vulnerable to soil erosion, it
is likely that unprotected (by soil or mulch) seed will wash down the
slope during the first rains before the seed has a chance to germinate.
This is especially likely if the first rains are heavy and the fire
was intense enough to make the soil water-repellent. Therefore, it is
advisable to cover seed with a mulch or landscape fabric where feasible.
Contour log terraces. Log terraces provide a barrier to runoff
from heavy rainstorms. Dead trees are felled, limbed, and placed on
the contour perpendicular to the direction of the slope. Logs are placed
in an alternating fashion so the runoff no longer has a straight down
slope path to follow. The water is forced to meander back and forth
between logs, reducing the velocity of the runoff, and giving water
time to percolate into the soil. Felling of trees can be dangerous and
is best done by a professional logger or arborist.
Logs should be 6 to 8 inches in diameter (smaller logs can be used)
and 10 to 30 feet long. The logs should be bedded into the soil for
the entire log length and backfilled with soil so water cannot run underneath;
backfill should be tamped down. Secure the logs from rolling by driving
stakes on the downhill side. It is best to begin work at the top of
the slope and work down. It is easier to see how the water might flow
by looking down on an area to better visualize the alternating spacing
of the logs.
Straw wattles. Straw wattles are long tubes of plastic netting
packed with excelsior, straw, or other material. Wattles are used in
a similar fashion to log terraces. The wattle is flexible enough to
bend to the contour of the slope. Wattles must be purchased from an
erosion control material supplier.
Silt fences. Landscape fabrics, made of woven wire and a fabric
filter cloth, are also used to control erosion. However, they can be
expensive compared with straw or natural mulches. Silt fences trap sediment
from runoff. These should be used in areas where runoff is more dispersed
over a broad flat area. Silt fences are not suitable for concentrated
flows occurring in small rills or gullies. Silt fences are made from
materials available at hardware stores, lumberyards, and nurseries.
Straw bale check dams. Straw bales placed in small drainages act as a dam collecting sediments from upslope and slowing the velocity of water traveling down the slope. Bales are carefully placed in rows with overlapping joints, much as one might build a brick wall. Some excavation is necessary to ensure bales butt up tightly against one another forming a good seal. Two rows (or walls) of bales are necessary and should be imbedded below the ground line at least six inches. Make sure the straw bales purchased for use are certified weed free.
Waterbars. Waterbars are mounds or berms of soil, rock, or bedded
logs that serve as speed bumps to channel water off roads and trails
to help prevent the creation of gullies. Water bars are angled down
the slope to the outlet side. These bars can divert water to a more
stable vegetated slope below or redirect it to a channel that will take
it to a culvert. On-site soils and the road grade will dictate spacing.
Another element of your forested landscape that may need extra protection
after a fire is the road system. The fire has most likely destroyed
vegetation and forest floor litter that would have intercepted and slowed
runoff water. Also, the soil may have developed a water-repellent layer
that increases runoff. The drainage system of roads in a burned area
may not be adequate to handle the increased runoff, debris, and sediment
after a fire. Roads and trails can also act as conduits for the increased
surface flow and may need extra attention to slow water movement.
To protect the road system as well as the downstream water quality,
consider taking the following actions. To insure proper design and installation,
work with experienced professionals.
To protect the road system:
To slow and divert water:
To trap sediment and debris:
To increase drainage:
Once the intensity of the fire has been assessed and hotspots of resource
damage have been identified and treated to reduce the immediate threat
of erosion, it is time to begin planning for long-term rehabilitation
of the site.
One problem for long-term planning is estimating which trees damaged
by fire may die in the future. Even trees in an area where the fire
burned at low-intensity may die in the near future if they sustain enough
damage. An understanding of how trees are damaged by fire and how mortality
occurs can help make this guess an educated one.
The ability of a tree to withstand fire damage is based on the thickness of the bark, rooting depth, needle length, bud size, and degree of scorch. Conifers (e.g. pines, firs, spruces, junipers, and Arizona cypress) are limited in their ability to reestablish themselves after a fire. Unlike some deciduous or hardwood trees and shrubs, the root systems of conifers do not regenerate from new vegetative stems or sucker sprouts.
Bark: In order for a conifer tree to survive, some of the roots,
the cambium of the main trunk, and buds must survive. The cambium is
the sensitive layer of growing cells that produces the vascular system
that conducts water and nutrients throughout the tree. The bark insulates
the cambium from the damaging intensity of a fire; the thicker the bark,
the better the protection. Bark thickness varies with age and differs
Buds: Buds are located at the ends of tree branches. Buds begin
forming at the end of spring to provide for next years growth. The foliage
(needles) of a conifer provides some protection to the buds. Longer
needles provide more protection than short ones. When the fire occurs
it can impact the development and survival of the buds. New buds may
not have been formed prior to an early summer fire, which reduces the
chances for tree survival.
The amount of scorched foliage in the tree crown can predict conifer
survival to a certain degree. Even with severe scorch damage, the buds
may survive and grow the following spring. Basing survival estimates
on scorch alone can be misleading; foliage color after a fire can be
deceptive. Buds should be carefully examined they should be firm
and the terminal stem flexible. The bud or stem should not break off
Roots: Damage to roots depends, in part, on the nature and overall
depth of the root system in the soil profile. The amount and depth of
the duff layer (needles, leaves, and other litter on the forest floor)
can impact a fires effect and damage to the root system. Fast
moving fires may not destroy the duff layer and may cause little root
Survival of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir after wildfire.
Two common conifer species in Arizona are ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir.
The degree of damage to roots, stems, and the crown determines whether
trees species will survive a fire. Bark thickness plays an important
role in their survival. As a ponderosa pine matures, it develops a very
thick bark that insulates the cambium from damaging heat. Even if the
bark is considerably scorched, the cambium can remain undamaged. Ponderosa
pine roots run deep thus providing further protection.
Trees beyond the pole stage (about the size good for fence and corral
posts) are very resistant to fire damage if they are not too crowded.
The crowns of larger trees are more elevated, thus protecting the buds
and foliage from heat scorch.
Cambium damage can be evaluated by chipping away a small section of
bark with an axe. A healthy cambium is a light tan or cream color. Dead
cambium is dry, brown or gray, and has a sour fermented smell. A large
amount of pitch exuding from deeply charred bark can also indicate cambium
Crown scorch and bud kill is considered the principle cause of death.
In healthy, well-spaced stands mortality is usually low. Ponderosa pines
lengthy needles can provide sufficient protection to the buds, which
are large and well protected by heavy scales.
Douglas-fir shares similar bark characteristics with ponderosa pine.
Both are more fire resistant than spruce and true fir. Douglas-fir needles
are very short in comparison with ponderosa pine. These offer little
protection to the small buds. Douglas-fir saplings are more prone to
loss than ponderosa pine.
Trunks 9 inches in diameter or larger can survive low to moderate intensity
fires. If 25 percent of the cambium is damaged, a Douglas-fir will most
likely die. In addition, Douglas-fir has shallow lateral roots that
are susceptible to damage. Currently, many ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir
forests are over-crowded. This leads to higher mortality rates due to
fire than in well-spaced stands.
Two other pine species unique to Arizona are Apache pine and Chihauhua
pine. Apache pine is probably even better adapted to withstand fire
than ponderosa pine as it can withstand high scorch levels and, when
younger, has a grass stage that protects the buds from surface
fires. Chihuahua pine is more susceptible than either ponderosa pine
or Apache pine, however it is one of the few pines that has the ability
to resprout from the root system after being damaged by fire.
Estimated survival of ponderosa fine from wildfire. The following table lists estimated ponderosa pine tree survival percentages following a wildfire, provided root damage has not occurred and under normal precipitation and weather conditions. The table was prepared by Gayle Richardson, Silviculturist with the USDA Forest Service Black Mesa Ranger District on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. The methods for calculations were taken from Effects of Fire Caused Defoliation and Basal Girdling on Water Relations and Growth of Ponderosa Pine by Kevin Christopher Ryan (1993).
The crown is measured from the very top of the tree to the bottom branch
of the tree. The percentage of the tree still green is used to estimate
the percent of possible survival.
Natural regeneration of ponderosa fine and Douglas-fir after wildfire.
Natural reestablishment of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir can occur
from seed depending on the presence of cones on the tree. Most pines
do not develop cones every year. Cones of pine require two seasons to
mature. Cones typically mature and release their seeds to the wind in
late summer and early fall. In some cases cones may continue to mature
on a top-killed tree and release a viable seed crop. While most pines
have variability in cone crop production, Douglas-fir is more regular.
In a severe fire only live trees around the perimeter of a burned area
may produce viable seed. Wind dispersal of the seed is often limited
to a few hundred feet from the seed-bearing tree; birds and rodents
also help distribute seed.
Even with a good seed crop, moisture conditions must be optimal for
seed germination and seedling survival. Fire effects on the forest floor
will impact the success of seedling establishment. Most conifers require
bare mineral soil for successful germination. The litter layer is often
consumed in slow moving fires, which exposes the necessary mineral soil.
Recovery of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir after wildfire.
Stands of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and white fir occupy the higher
elevations of Arizonas mountains; moisture and temperature conditions
here are often less favorable for development of an intense fire. Catastrophic
fires are less frequent in this zone; however, when fires do occur,
they can be intense. Both tree species share characteristics making
them highly susceptible to fire mortality. The bark is thin and ignites
easily, the roots are shallow and the branches grow near the ground.
Recovery of these tree species after a fire can be difficult and slow.
Both are adapted to a cool and shady environment. Seedlings may become
established in small burns of 1/10 acre or less. Larger areas may not
reestablish because seedlings are intolerant of the intense sunlight
at this elevation. New seedlings may establish at the perimeter of a
larger fire. The seedlings require the shade the larger trees provide.
Wildfire effects on pinons, junipers, and Arizona cypress. Piñon
pines, limber pine, most juniper species, and Arizona cypress are very
susceptible to fire damage and are easily top-killed. Most have thin,
highly flammable bark that provides little insulation to the cambium.
Alligator juniper with its thicker and blocky bark is more insulated
from the effects of wildfire on the trunk or cambium of the tree. Alligator
juniper also sprouts profusely and is very capable of recovering from
wildfire provided it has reached a height of 4 feet or more.
Reestablishment of these trees is from seed; rodents and birds often
store large amounts of seed. However, this can be a very slow process.
Typically, a severely damaged stand will convert to a shrub community
with gradual reintroduction of trees at 60 to 100 years.
Effects of wildfire on quaking aspen. Quaking aspen can form
extensive pure stands in Arizona, and are also present to a greater
or lesser degree in many other forest types. As a result, the aspen
component in a conifer stand can greatly increase after a fire. In addition,
while conifers successfully out-compete aspen in a non-fire situation,
after fires occur, aspen may regenerate in a pure stand. This is due
to the extensive suckering from roots when the main trunk of the aspen
Thin aspen bark makes it susceptible to fire damage. Pure stands are
often missed or jumped in some fires due to the low flammability of
aspen. Again, the diameter of the trunk influences the trees resistance
to fire. Diameters of six inches or more are often quite resistant
Recovery of shrubs, grasses and forbs after wildfire. Unlike
conifers, many shrubs, forbs and grasses readily sprout from underground
root structures after a fire. These root structures vary in size, shape
and depth in the soil profile. Fire severity directly impacts these
structures and influences which species regenerate. Slow moving fires
destroy the duff layer and heat the soil to lethal temperatures. Sometimes
shallow root structures are destroyed favoring those species with deeper
roots. However, when a forest canopy is so dense that there is little
or no understory, it may take considerably longer for grasses and shrubs
to come in after a wildfire.
If you have a sizeable property with forest trees of commercial value,
whether to harvest trees killed as a result of wildfire is a personal
decision, but will need to be made fairly quickly after the fire is
out. This decision will also be affected by the availability of markets
for commercial trees in your area. In some parts of Arizona because
of the lack of markets for wood this may not be a viable option.
Trees sustaining heavy damage from fire die and lose their commercial
value rapidly. Trees which sustain medium damage may survive, but typically
do not fully recover their previous vigor. This leaves them vulnerable
to attack by insects and to future droughts.
Once a tree has died, it loses its commercial value quickly due to
decay. The speed at which this occurs depends on the tree species. White
fir and subalpine fir are especially quick to decay, while ponderosa
pine and Douglas-fir are much more resistant and will typically take
several years longer. In addition, dead trees which still contain sound
wood become infected with blue stain fungus, which does not weaken the
wood, but decreases the value and grade of lumber which can be made
Salvage harvesting provides a number of advantages to private property
owners. Most importantly, accumulated dead and damaged trees provide
fuel for future fires, and their removal reduces the risk that additional
fires will burn through the damaged area. Removal also reduces the spread
of insects which proliferate in dead and damaged trees.
Any income received from salvaged trees can be used to recoup losses
as well as to finance rehabilitation of damaged areas through replanting
and installation of erosion control measures.
While salvage harvesting can produce these benefits, it must be carried
out properly to avoid further resource damage. Improperly done harvesting
can increase soil damage when too much soil is disturbed or the wrong
equipment is used.
In the long term, some dead trees are needed for wildlife habitat and
cover. Also, dead trees return nutrients to the soil.
Because of these risks, it is important that salvage harvesting be
carried out with the help of a professional forester. A professional
forester can be contracted to help you sell your trees, secure the best
price for them, plan and execute the sale and harvest, and develop a
reforestation plan for your land. A professional forester can also help
you in addressing any state or federal regulations dealing with the
protection of water quality, soil erosion, riparian areas, and wildlife
habitat. Neighbors and friends who have harvested timber before are
good leads to registered professional foresters or you can consult the
phone book yellow pages under the listings of Forester, consultant.
The Association of Consulting Foresters also maintains a web site that
lists ACF member registered consulting foresters by state (www.acf-foresters.com).
Once tree damage has been assessed, homeowners can make decisions as
to which trees may need to be removed. Candidates for removal most certainly
include heavily and moderately damaged trees near structures and roads
since these hazard trees are likely to fall and cause damage in the
near future. Felling and removal of trees is hazardous work and is best
done by a certified arborist using proper equipment.
In the case of removing fire damaged trees that were prominent in the
home landscape prior to fire, it is important to take photographs of
the trees that were burned or damaged prior to their removal. This is
especially important if you do not have any previous photographs of
your home and the trees and shrubs that existed prior to the fire. Photographs
are useful in helping to document losses that may be covered by your
insurance policy or as a casualty loss on your income taxes. Prominence
of the trees or shrubs in the home landscape, their placement, size,
and species are some of the factors that are used by a consulting arborists
in generating, establishing, and documenting tree and shrub losses and
Timber tax considerations. A loss of a portion of the forest
stand on your property due to wildfire can be claimed on your federal
income tax statement as a casualty loss (see the definition of a casualty
loss in the next section that addresses landscape tax considerations).
Calculating the amount that can be claimed as a deduction requires sound
data on your forest stand, probably best collected by a professional
forester. In some cases, the expense of collecting the necessary data
will not offset the reduced tax burden that results.
If you decide to replant burned areas, you may claim a ten percent
tax credit for your planting and reforestation expenses, up to a maximum
of $10,000 per year. These expenses may also be amortized over a seven-year
You should strongly consider getting the advice of an income tax professional
to help you evaluate your tax situation and advise you on the most tax
advantageous method for selling timber.
Landscape tax considerations. A homeowners insurance policy
may or may not cover the removal, replacement, and installation costs
for yard or landscape trees and shrubs lost as a result of fire or other
natural disaster. Thus it is best to first check your coverage thoroughly
with your insurance agent. If the insurance policy does not cover such
losses there is another avenue that may be pursued by the property owner
a casualty loss deduction on the homeowners federal and/or
state income-tax returns.
A casualty loss is a sudden and unanticipated loss resulting from fire,
storm, or other natural disasters, and must, by IRS rules, be 10% or
greater of the annual gross income before it can be claimed.
Whether for insurance or income tax services, documenting costs, losses,
and values is best done by engaging the services of a registered consulting
arborist who is skilled in establishing monetary values for landscape
trees and shrubs using the Guide for Plant Appraisals. The
guide is authored by The Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers and
is published by the International Society of Arboriculture. The American
Society of Consulting Arborists maintains a list of registered consulting
arborists by state who specialize in plant appraisal work (www.asca-consultants.org/search/index.html).
Property owners should also check out the cost of obtaining such services
as it could exceed the amount of any savings on their income taxes.
A number of technical assistance cost-share programs may be available
to assist landowners with reforestation, replanting and other resource
conservation practices. Technical assistance may also be available from
federal or state agencies in the event there are no consulting foresters
in the area. Agencies providing education, technical assistance and
cost-share programs are listed in the section titled For More
For more information on the topics in this brochure or contact information
for other sources of information, education, and technical assistance,
For information regarding tax treatment of timber:
This publication is based on and borrows heavily from
a University of California-Berkeley Extension publication titled Recovering
from Wildfire: A Guide for Californias Forest Landowners by Susie
Kocher, Staff Research Assistant; Richard Harris, Forestry Specialist;
and Gary Nakamura, Forestry Specialist and a Colorado State University
Cooperative Extension publication titled Vegetative Recovery After
Wildfire by R. Moench
Arizona FIREWISE Communities Cooperators
University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State Land Department, Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, Arizona Fire Districts Association, Arizona Emergency Services Association, Arizona Planning Association, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, James A. Christenson, Director, Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, The University of Arizona.
The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is an equal opportunity employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to sex, religion, color, national origin, age, Vietnam era Veterans status, or disability.
Any products, services, or organizations
that are mentioned, shown, or indirectly implied in this publication
do not imply endorsement by The University of Arizona.
Document located http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/natresources/az1293/