Dry Weather, Fire Risk

Pine wilt trees in windbreak

Scotch pine trees, killed by pine wilt, left to stand in a windbreak close to a home can pose a fire hazard.

Dry Weather, Dry Plants Are Fire Risks

By Kelly Feehan, Extension Educator

Dry weather doesn't occur just in summer, dry winter conditions are common in Nebraska, too. With dry plants and dry plant material not being covered by snow or moistened by rain, be aware of the potential fire hazard. We do not hear as much about fire risk at this time of year, but it does exist.

Ornamental Plants Can Pose a Risk
The dry tops of ornamental grasses left over winter. Dead conifers killed by pine wilt. Dry tree leaves accumulating in yard corners and more. These could create tinder and fuel for a carelessly discarded cigarette or possibly an electrical short.
It is often recommended to leave the tops of ornamental grasses over winter and wait to cut them back in early spring. While the tops are dead, the foliage and flowering plumes add color and motion to the winter landscape.

But keep in mind the dry tops of ornamental grasses can be a fire hazard; especially in dry years such as we are experiencing. Planting ornamental grasses whose dried foliage is allowed to remain for the winter near combustibles such as a house or garage may not always be wise.

Ornamental grasses can be highly flammable when dry. If an ornamental grass is in a location where it is a potential fire hazard, consider removing the foliage in late fall to reduce the risk.

Ornamental grasses, especially natives, are great landscape plants. They hold soil, help conserve water, provide wildlife cover, and tolerate weather extremes. Continue to use ornamental grasses in the landscape, but be aware the dried tops can be combustible.

Be Aware of the Hazard Dead Pine Trees Pose
Pine trees that have died from wilt disease are becoming abundant. This extremely dry plant material is combustible. While we may not have to worry about lightning strikes at this time of year, it is wise to keep this potential fire risk in mind.
When a pine tree dies from wilt disease after October 1, it is recommended the tree be cut down and buried, chipped or burned by April 1. This is to stop the pine sawyer beetle from emerging, beginning in May, and carrying the disease causing nematodes to other pine trees.

However, if a dead pine is located near a combustible such as a house or garage, consider removing the tree as soon as possible to reduce to reduce the fire risk.

If burning is the means used to discard the disease infested wood, keep in mind the dry conditions we are experiencing and take precautions to reduce the risk of a fire spreading. Consider chipping the wood to use as mulch or burying it in place of burning.

Just as ornamental grasses should continue to be used in landscapes so should pine trees be planted where evergreen conifers are a good choice. Do not plant Scotch pine trees as these are highly susceptible to pine wilt. Austrian, white and jack pines could potentially be infected as well but the risk is much lower. Ponderosa pines are considered to be resistant to pine wilt disease.

For information on fire safety around the home, see the Nebraska Forest Service guide "Living with Fir: A Homeowners Guide" (for Eastern Nebraska).