Polar Vortex contributes to possible increased wildfire threat

Limbs heavily-laden with snow and ice can break off and die increasing fuel loads ahead of our next fire season.

Heavily snow-laden spruce tree Credit: Mike Schira
Heavily snow-laden spruce tree Credit: Mike Schira

A serious fire threat is posed by this winter’s snow accumulations on trees throughout the Lake States region enhanced by unusually cold temperatures attributed to a Polar Vortex. Tree limbs, weighted down by increasingly heavy snows and ice, bend and break off. Dead branches and needles can add to fuel loads and increase the threat from wildfire once the snow melts and the season migrates into the spring wildfire period.

Permanently bent or broken limbs, particularly on conifers (trees with needles), pose an additional threat. Fires burning along the ground can inflame these fuel sources, following them up the tree and develop into fast moving crown fires when pushed by spring winds.

Vegetation that provides a means for fire to move up from the ground to tree tops or canopies is defined as “ladder fuel”. These potential threats need to be identified and removed to help protect homes and structures from fire. Removing this vegetation and pruning trees in the immediate vicinity of buildings is suggested.

Michigan State University Extension, through its Firewise Communities program, recommends that a defensible area should be cleared of combustible materials at least thirty feet away from all structures. Trees, particularly the more fire prone conifers, should be pruned high enough off the ground to prevent them from catching fire should a ground fire move through the area. Pruning to 6 to 10 feet off the ground is recommended.

All homeowners as well as cottage and camp owners are encouraged to inspect their ownerships once the winter season begins to recede for these potential threats. It is expected this winter season’s heavy snow accumulations, along with the ice storms some areas have experienced, will have added considerable amounts to fire prone fuel loads. Roofs and gutters should also be inspected to ensure debris that can also be a source of wildfire ignition hasn’t accumulated since last fall.

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