Missoula and Western Montana | Montana's News Leader®

On Special Assignment: Dead trees pose real threat to people

HELENA – There are many dangers that Montanans may face in the wilderness.

Bringing enough water, supplies and bear spray all steps people can take to make sure they’re safe though. But what does a person do when the threat in the forest is the very trees themselves?

A tree snag is defined as any standing tree that is dead or dying. Snags are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle and provide habitats for many wildlife.

However, by being a snag it means that the tree’s structure is compromised and will eventually fall. When a tree falls, depending on its size, it can bring hundreds or even thousands of pounds of force with it.

Jay Hedrick is a 10 year veteran forester who works for the USDA Forest Service. Hedrick says he’s seen firsthand just how dangerous a tree snag can be.

“No matter how long you’ve been doing it, it is a pretty frightening situation especially if you’re witnessing these trees come down,” says Hedrick.

There are a number of things can cause a tree to die such as pine beetles, fungus or fire damage. A University of Montana report says pine beetles alone are responsible for dead trees in some 9 million acres of Montana forests.

Spring can be particularly bad for tree falls due to snowmelt and rain saturating the ground. “If you add just a little bit of wind to that it just increases the potential of these trees coming down,” says Hedrick.

According to the US Forest Service, the best thing a person can do is be aware of their surroundings. Even if the tree has a green top, if the lower part of the tree is dead it can pose a significant risk.

“Even a branch falling could kill someone so a significant amount of force coming down,” says Hedrick.

Tragically, Montana knows all too well just how deadly a falling tree can be.

Firefighters Trenton Johnson, of Missoula and Brent Witham, of Mentone, California both lost their lives to falling trees last year while fighting wildfires in Montana. The two firefighters paid the ultimate price to keep us safe.

The historic fire season of 2017 burned more than one million acres and the burn scars are filled with snags.

David Hamilton of Montana DNRC, who has spent the last 20 years fighting wildland fires, says that especially when fire is involved, tree snags prose a significant threat to firefighters.

“While we’re actively suppressing a fire I’ve watched trees fall without any sign. They just decided to fall,” says Hamilton.

Hamilton says that whenever people are out enjoying the outdoors they need to make sure to be alert. If an area looks unsafe, choosing a different route or place to recreate that day is recommended.

“Never underestimate the power of Mother Nature,” added Hamilton, “And when one of those trees wants to fall you’re not going to know it until it starts falling.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a person is more likely to be injured or even killed by a falling tree than a bear or any other large animal.

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