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Oregon-Northwest

Arborist reviews, gives ‘A’ grade to Oregon fire-damaged hazard tree removal program

Post-wildfire hazard tree removal work  sparked criticism by some who say it's being rushed and mismanaged, leading to more logging than necessary
Oregon Debris Management Task Force
Post-wildfire hazard tree removal work sparked criticism by some who say it's being rushed and mismanaged, leading to more logging than necessary

(Update: Correcting source of news release)

SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ)– A Pacific Northwest arborist with more than 30 years of experience has submitted his positive findings to the state following a thorough review of the hazard tree removal effort underway to support Oregon’s rebuilding and recovery process, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management said Monday.

In response to public concerns and calls for an independent investigation into the work underway, Galen Wright, president of Washington Forestry Consultants, Inc., evaluated the state hazard tree removal program and its workers and drafted a report sharing the findings.

Here's the rest of Monday's OEM news release on the arborist's findings:

According to ODF, Wright’s review found that the certified arborists and professional foresters working in the field generally meet or exceed the experience and qualifications required to evaluate fire-damaged trees. The report also found that the FEMA-required criteria being used is sound for making these determinations and is being applied appropriately in the field.

“It is our finding that ODOT and the Debris Management Task Force have the necessary operational plan, protocols, contracts and requirements necessary to conduct and provide quality assurance for this hazard tree mitigation program for the 2020 Oregon wildfires. No changes are recommended to the current protocols,” Wright said in the report.

In response to public requests for urgency and a timely review process, Wright spent weeks assessing on-the-ground samples of work in the field; reviewing resumes, certifications and other qualification materials of the crews in the field; and diving into emergency response requirements currently guiding the operation.

Wright’s report gives the operation an A grade and finds 96% agreement with the total fire-damaged trees being marked, noting that more than 99% of the trees marked for removal are dead, dying, or pose a safety threat if left standing. In addition to a very small percentage of some smaller trees set back from the highway that could be potentially unmarked moving forward, Wright’s review also found that there were other stands of unmarked fire-damaged trees that should be marked for future cutting.

“We are honored to be asked to perform this important work helping Oregon families and communities recover and ultimately rebuild,” said Mac Lynde, deputy administrator for delivery and operations at ODOT and the head of the three-agency Debris Management Task Force. “We acknowledge that this is a complex and unprecedented effort, with many different opinions and approaches, and we stood ready to implement any potential recommendations resulting from this report. Mr. Wright’s objective and independent findings provide a concrete direction that benefits all Oregonians and reinforces the adaptive nature of this emergency response operation. We appreciate Mr. Wright’s conclusions.”

Wright also found that the arborists and foresters under contract possess the experience and qualifications necessary to perform this work effectively.

Of the more than 1,200 contracted crew members and more than 40 arborists and foresters in the field, only one arborist was identified as not fully meeting qualifications for the position due to their entry-level status, although they were a certified arborist. This staffer is not responsible for final decisions and is supervised by more senior colleagues as part of a multi-step review system where their work is routinely monitored before any cutting occurs.

The report provides a helpful snapshot of the scope and scale of trees being cut or removed in these corridors. While the state-led hazard tree operation comprises less than 1% of the total 1-million-acre fire burn area, it was found that more than half (58.3%) of the fire-damaged trees in this area are being left for conservation and monitoring purposes, per the criteria used to evaluate these fire-damaged trees.

“With our initial charge to move quickly, and knowing this work is unprecedented for Oregon, Mr. Wright’s review helps underline the good work underway while providing a roadmap for adapting other areas moving forward. While we work to ensure no more lives are lost at the hands of the 2020 wildfires, we will continue to incorporate feedback from a range of partners to make sure this work is done right and look forward to future planning conversations if this operation becomes an unfortunate new reality for Oregon,” said Lynde.

Lynde said that applying Wright’s input is a critical step toward introducing Oregon to the complex recovery task underway. In addition to Wright’s recommendations, staff and crews will continue ongoing internal program appraisals and hazard tree criteria iterations as necessary and will work with the Secretary of State’s office as part of an annual audit plan.

Additional checks and balances are also in place to ensure fire-damaged tree evaluations and markings are thorough and accurate. Arborists and foresters overseeing tree marking are paid hourly rather than by the tree to create a clear separation of duties and eliminate conflicts of interest. Tree cutters are liable for a $2,000 fine for each unmarked tree that is cut. ODOT incident commanders, environmental monitors, a monitoring firm acting as operation inspectors, a disaster consulting firm with expertise in FEMA reimbursement procedures, and the Army Corps of Engineers all monitor field operations daily as well.

“Our objective remains to remove only dead or dying fire-damaged trees posing a threat to human life and safety and for those trying to rebuild,” said Lynde. “We accept and welcome all feedback to help inform these efforts and will continue to investigate and take swift and corrective action in response to any reports of mismanagement for the duration of this work.”

The 2020 September wildfires go down in history as one of Oregon’s most devastating disasters, burning more than 1 million acres, destroying thousands of homes, and claiming the lives of nine Oregonians. Afterward, communities were confronted by devastation and loss, with swaths of dead burned trees blocking roads, toppling over highways and interfering with cleanup efforts. For Oregon to receive federal reimbursement as part of an emergency response operation, the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council charged ODOT and the Task Force to immediately start work removing debris from nearly 3,000 damaged home sites and the thousands of hazardous dead or dying trees surrounding these areas.

To accomplish this unprecedented effort, teams of certified arborists, professional foresters, field technicians and environmental consultants worked together with state and federal land managers and environmental regulators to draft an Environmental Protection Plan and criteria for how to evaluate each tree to determine threat levels.

While state-led work is happening only along state highways and near fire-impacted home sites, state crews and independent contractors are not the only ones performing recovery work. Many local groups and landowners, governments and utility companies are also working simultaneously in these areas. Currently, more than half (83,000) of the total estimated 140,000 fire-damaged trees have been assessed and marked, and more than a quarter (40,700) have been cut or removed.

“We recognize and mourn the lasting imprint these fires have left on Oregon as we all work together to recover and rebuild,” said Lynde. “We encourage anyone with a question or concern about any aspect of this work to call our hotline at 503-934-1700 so that we can help coordinate and find solutions together.”

READ THE INDEPENDENT FINDINGS REPORT HERE.

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Comments

3 Comments

  1. I think some laymans-terms explanations of some of the trees marked for removal would be good here too, or at least in the report (I’ve had a hard time finding them). Along the lines of “This tree was marked for cutting (or was cut), objections were raised, and here’s why those objections were incorrect” for some examples. I would say a large portion of the population doesn’t know a large amount of fire ecology (and the stuff I know barely scrapes the surface).

    I’m not sure what mix of trees they had, but I know things like hemlock have really thin barks that basically get damaged easily by fire. The top may still be green, but that tree *will* die.

    Doug fir (which I think comprises more of that area) is a bit more fire tolerant, but if the crown and others parts of the tree are more fire damaged than they can tolerate (and this was a pretty intense fire) they’ll get diseased and die eventually anyway as well.

    I know some trees were right next to the road or someone’s house/town/whatever where some people were complaining about the trees being cut, even though they still look green, and might not be a hazard tree now, they will be soon enough. Cheaper to deal with it now and not have to drag out expensive machinery later and block your supply chain of fuel coming over the mountain when it falls over from a gentle breeze.

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