Editor’s note: This is the 20th in a series of stories looking at the cause and impact of the Drought of 2011.

Trees distressed from lack of water and heat are not only dropping their leaves, but dropping limbs as well, causing problems for local firefighters.

The wave of wind and storms this week caused power lines to drop and trees limbs to fall. Michael Batton, district fire coordinator for the Texas Forest Service, said several fires have been sparked due to limbs falling on power lines. A large wildfire in Neches on Aug. 15 that burned 450 acres of timber was sparked this way.

“Trees die, whether they are healthy or stressed,” Batton said. “It’s just nature; trees die on their own, and out in the middle of nowhere there is nothing you can do about it. A little wind spell will come and  the wind picks up and blows the dead tree onto a power line.”

It is a problem across the county, officials said.

“Some of the trees have already gone brittle because they have died from the drought, and that is part of what we are seeing is limb breakage and stuff like that,” said Kim Conway, county extension agent for horticulture for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Trees are trying to conserve water and energy. To do that effectively the trees will drop their leaves and start to compartmentalize, Conway said. Just because a tree’s leaves are dead does not mean the tree is dead.

“The trees are shedding down and trying to store water and killing off their leaves,” Conway said. “It’s a gradual process. If you imagine that limbs and twigs are extremities and that, just like us, our circulation stops at the most extreme areas and goes in when we need to reserve circulation. It’s the same thing with trees and plants — the extremities die off first. The smaller trees that do not have as much roots for storage or bigger trunks are the ones that die off first.”

Oncor has a list of warning signs that a tree may be a hazard to fall on a power line: detached branches in the tree, or cracks or splints in the tree’s trunk or branches. Roots that have been broken or damaged by lowering the soil level, installing pavement, repairing sidewalks or digging trenches are warning signs as well. If the tree’s location has been changed by raising soil level, construction or putting in a lawn, the tree may be affected.

Oncor recommends planting low growing trees with a mature height of 25 feet near power lines. They do have a tree pruning program, and information can be found at www.oncor.com/trees or by calling 1-888-313-4747.

The Texas Department of Transportation has also been watching trees closely.

“We keep an eye on our system,” said Larry Krantz, spokesperson for TxDot. “If we see one that has been dormant looking, brown, no leaves, for a year or two, then it is probably time to take it down, because it is probably not coming back. If a tree has died, not just gone dormant but in fact died because of this weather, it’s probably not going to be apparent for another 18 months to two years.”

 Trees affected by the drought can also be blown onto roadways during severe weather, but Krantz said oddly enough, living trees present more of a danger of falling on roadways during weather events.

“It’s the live trees that cause the most trouble for us during weather events,” Krantz stated in a press release. “With their leaves acting as sails catching the wind and limbs heavy with water, a live tree is a lot more likely to fall during high winds than a dead tree. It takes a dead tree years to decompose, and since dead trees don’t resist the wind like a live tree, they’re not as likely to be blown down as they are to crumble in place.”

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