The contrast of bright pink fireweed or layers of lupine against the black and silver trunks of a recently-burned forest makes for excellent hiking. The flowers are a pop of color and the charred trunks around you give the scene an air of mystery. Plus, the lack of leaves and branches makes for big views in every direction.
But those big views do come with an added risk. Trees are an often-overlooked safety hazard, and the danger of falling trees is magnified while hiking through the site of a past burn. Trees do fall in the forest. And when it happens, you don't want to be standing too close.
For advice on staying safe from the hazards of falling trees or branches, we turned to some of the situational awareness strategies used by WTA's trail maintenance team. Here are some of the tips and guidelines they use to stay safe in a burned forest.
Be Alert, Know When Not To Go
The first step to being safe in a burned forest is to be aware of the conditions that might await you on trail.
- Does the forecast call for wind speeds greater than 30 mph? Don't go into a burned area and have a backup plan ready.
- Is a winter or rain storm event likely? Rain leads to a heightened risk of moving earth. As soil becomes saturated, it becomes easier for trees — even healthy ones — to lose their footing and fall over. Consider a backup option.
- Are you sure the recreation site is open? Burns can lead to trail closures that extend beyond the duration of the fire. Check the Hiking Guide or with the land manager before you go.
- Do you plan on camping in a burned area? Research the campsite to ensure it is open and clear of hazardous trees (burned or leaning trees at risk of falling in your direction).
- If trail signs are missing, will you be comfortable navigating the area? Research your route ahead of time and always carry a hiking map.
When hiking in higher-risk conditions, there are several things you can do to mitigate danger and keep you and your group as safe as possible.
- Be constantly aware of your surroundings. Look around (and up!) and be aware of nearby dead trees, limbs or snags while on trail.
- Listen for wind: If the wind picks up, stop and watch the trees overhead until the gusts die down. (Alternatively, move quickly in more hazardous spots, if the safer forest is ahead or behind you.) If you stop for lunch or a rest, try to choose a clearing or an area where trees are less likely to fall. This goes for setting up a backcountry campsite, too. Engage all of your senses — listen for creaking and cracking sounds, and watch for trees shedding smaller branches.
- Root burnout: This is when the roots of a tree burn away underground, leaving the ground on top undisturbed. It mainly occurs with complete burns of large trees near the trail. When root burnout occurs under the trail, the tread can collapse under your feet as you hike. After a couple of years, the ground settles, eliminating the risk.
- Rockfall on steep slopes: With intense burns on steep slopes, the vegetation that holds the topsoil and rocks in place is weakened/eliminated. It doesn’t take rain to create rockfall in these situations. Again, after a couple of years, the ground has settled and most “loose” rocks have fallen.
- Communicate with your team or hiking partners. Make sure your group is aware of the conditions and how they might increase risk. Our volunteer crews can be spread out over half a mile, so our crew leaders make sure to pass the word down the line to communicate with everyone. You can do the same thing if your group hikes at different speeds. If you notice any suspicious trees or branches, or if you notice something fall, stop to let everyone in your group know.
- Know when to call it a day. The safety of you and your group will always be more important than the trail work being done or the viewpoint at the end of your hike. If conditions seem unsafe, know when to turn in for the day and head for home.