Climate Change, Wildfires, and Tree Cutting

August 2, 2022

From the August KCC Newsletter:  Interview with Sarah Lyon, SCOL staff member and scientist, by Cynthia Irvine

The land at SCOL was purchased in 2001. Why would we cut 114 of the beautiful trees near the buildings?
I think the question of fire at SCOL is a “when” question not an “if” question. The structures were built with fire resistant roofing and siding, and one of the other main things suggested by fire prevention experts is to minimize tree coverage close to buildings. Research also suggests removing leaves, pine needles, and debris for at least five feet from buildings, which is something we are doing.

Interestingly enough, when we talked with the Department of Natural Resources guy, he was not concerned with any trees inside the cloister. Getting rid of larger trees that are close together and close to buildings outside the cloister can prevent crown fires. A crown fire is when the upper portions of branches are burning and fire leaps from treetop to treetop. If trees are further apart, it minimizes this possibility.

What sources did you use for researching this?
The main guidelines we are following can be found on the National Fire Protection Association website here.

Are there other things in addition to tree cutting that we should be considering at SCOL to prevent fires?
The deck outside of the staff dining room is wood and the cloister fences are wood. We have thought of ways to handle this (such as rebuilding with fire resistant material) but no solutions have been implemented yet.

Trees are known to store carbon dioxide, to shelter birds and small animals, and to lower temperatures around them during hot months. What helps you feel OK about cutting these trees?
We still have over 235 acres we are not impacting. The cutting will occur on a relatively small portion of our land. I don’t want to cut any trees down and I think it is the best way to protect the property. A team of people (Dan Malmon, Adele Hilsen, Chehale Alexander, and myself) spent a day looking at trees, determining which looked healthier, which looked too close together, and which were providing shade for the buildings. We prioritized keeping oaks and older pines. The trees marked are not the final decisions, just a way to get an idea about the scope of work necessary. Those marked include about half the trees within sixty feet of the buildings. Tree removal would not begin until the fall.

Given climate change, will this cutting safeguard our buildings?
We can’t say for sure. As climate change progresses, the likelihood of fire increases, but we can’t predict the exact future of fire at SCOL. Reducing tree coverage around buildings increases the chance that smaller fires can be fought effectively, but in a large, hot, fast-moving fire no amount of tree cutting can guarantee the safety of the buildings.

It sounds like an expensive project, and I know you don’t have all the details worked out yet. If there are any avid arborists in our community who are good with a chainsaw, should they contact you?
Yes please. If there is anyone who is good with a chainsaw, interested in learning how to use a chainsaw, or interested in helping out with physical labor, please send me an email at


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