Cal Poly Humboldt’s Tree Study Aims to Mitigate PG&E Power Outages and Wildfires

Cal Poly Humboldt is taking proactive steps to reduce wildfire risks in Northern California. A team of faculty and students from the university is embarking on a three-year study focused on tree health. This research initiative, supported by a $497,000 grant from PG&E, aims to investigate the health of trees in areas where they interact with human-made structures like powerlines, roads, and buildings, as well as natural forest environments. The study encompasses five counties: Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Shasta, and Trinity.

PG&E’s motivation for funding this research lies in its concern over frequent power outages caused by fallen trees, which also pose a significant fire risk in rural Northern California.

The research team’s work involves identifying and assessing the health of trees, including those that are dead or damaged due to root, stem, or branch breakage, disease, or fire damage. Additionally, they gather data on each tree’s location, height, soil moisture, groundcover, nearby competition, and microclimates in the understory (the layer of vegetation under tree canopies). Data loggers, which measure temperature and humidity every three hours, are used to monitor these microclimates.

The comprehensive data collected will help researchers understand tree health, the environmental factors influencing it, and the potential for trees to fall and damage infrastructure. It aims to pinpoint areas at high risk of fire due to substantial fuel loads combined with dry conditions.

“Existing research is unable to conclusively link independent site-level or tree-level factors to the likelihood of tree failure, especially in the ecoregions and forest types we are studying,” said David Dorval, a graduate student in Natural Resources. “Current research is also unclear on how to quantify tree health as a means to predict tree failure in the forest setting.”

Ultimately, the results of this study will provide valuable insights for land managers, including PG&E, enabling them to focus their vegetation management efforts on areas susceptible to tree failure and wildfires in Northern California’s rural regions.

“We’ve seen too many wildfires across the continent caused by tree failure near powerlines or other power infrastructure,” said Damian Giles, a junior Forestry major and project manager for the study. “With more information about tree health, we can minimize those fires. More information leads to better vegetation management plans and safer communities.”

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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