Dead trees pose risk in natural disasters

Recent thunderstorm serves as a reminder of hazards

The tens of thousands of dead trees scattered throughout The Woodlands are causing some amount of anxiety among community leaders as the Gulf Coast heads into the August and September hurricane season. In addition to the danger that high winds pose, the thousands of trees, whether dead or alive, could serve to add fuel to a wildfire in an area that knows well the dangers fires pose.

According to a report prepared by The Woodlands Township, about 16 percent of the 1.8 million trees in The Woodlands are dead. Thousands are being removed by the township; some are being cut down by property owners, some are toppling on their own and many are falling because of high winds and storms.

John Powers, the township's assistant general manager for community services, said they are aware of the dangers the large number of dead trees pose in the event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or wildfire.

"We're concerned," he said. "That's why our plan is to remove all of the hazardous trees as quickly as possible and focus on those that are big and have the most propensity for damage. We would like to have everything wrapped up before the start of hurricane season."

Storm scare

The Woodlands received a clear reminder on June 12 of the dangers the thousands of dead trees pose when a 59-minute thunderstorm blew through the community, splaying dead trees on major roadways and pathways and onto houses and cars. Thousands were left without power and the cleanup will cost the township more than $420,000.

"That storm certainly threw us a curveball," Powers said.

The storm served as a trial of sorts for many of the first responders in the community. Members of the Montgomery County Office for Emergency Management patrolled the area and posted information on the office's website and Facebook page.

"We take an all-hazards approach when preparing for an emergency," said Miranda Garvey, CERT coordinator for the OEM. "The Woodlands has a lot of trees and not all areas have underground power lines, which creates an additional hazard for falling limbs. And because of the drought, there are lots and lots of dead trees. A strong storm will leave a lot of debris."

Dead trees in numbers

This spring American Forest Management conducted a "forest audit" of The Woodlands. The audit revealed that there are about 52,650 dead trees in the township public spaces, which does not include medians, private or commercial property. The audit revealed that 61 percent of those trees, however, were less than 6 inches in diameter and would not need to be removed because they pose a "minimal risk."

But just one year removed from the Roberts Road wildfire that occurred less than 20 miles from the western edge of The Woodlands, there is concern such debris could serve as fuel for a fire.

"If a wildfire occurs, it's not going to matter if [a tree] is dead or green," Powers said. "Forest fires are going to happen regardless. What is a factor is the dried debris that is on the ground. Debris piles might still be on the forest floor. Those would be more fuel for a wildfire."

"If you've got a pile of tree debris, you're running a risk," Garvey said.

Risk areas

Most of the trees are where Woodlands Fire Chief Alan Benson calls "open space reserves," such as the undeveloped areas along the boundaries of The Woodlands along FM 2978 and FM 1488, the Mitchell Preserve or Jones Forest. The AFM audit reported that the majority of tree removals have occurred in the villages of Grogan's Mill, Panther Creek and Cochran's Crossing.

Benson said the cost of a wildfire in The Woodlands could be immeasurable.

"In addition to the billions of dollars of real estate, a fire would damage our landscape, which makes the community what it is," Benson said. "How do you put a price tag on that?"

Because of the nature of The Woodlands master plan, with most structures nestled among the trees, the biggest potential for damage is to homes, said Mark Hanna, Insurance Council of Texas spokesperson.

In addition, shopping centers and other businesses can be affected, but Hanna said most are surrounded by pavement and any trees planted nearby typically have some separation or are thinned out to help with visibility.

"Everyone likes to be nestled in the woods and likes privacy, but that can make for a dangerous situation," Hanna said.


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