We sincerely hope and trust that you’ll never need to know how to help your fruit trees recover from a fire. But if recent summers are anything to go by, fires are definitely a growing risk, and it pays to be prepared.

In 2018 we had a bushfire race through our orchard, so we want to share our experience.

Hopefully, it will help you know what to do if you ever find yourself in this situation.

Katie and Hugh watching the fire burn through the orchard
Katie and Hugh watching the fire burn through the orchard

It was a traumatic experience to go through, but we were incredibly lucky. It gave us much more empathy for everyone who’s been through a bushfire and lost a house, or livestock, or a loved one.

We got away very lightly.

Our amazing fire services put the fire out promptly. In the end, we only lost about 300 fruit trees, some fences, and the irrigation system. The fruit trees were a mix of plum, peach, and nectarine trees.

Our most immediate concern after the fire (after having a good wash up and a cold bevy) was what to do next.

A red fire truck and fire people in yellow costumes putting out the remnants of the bushfire. Smoke is still coming from the grass and the trees are blackened.
Fire services putting out the remnants of the bushfire on our place

How can a bushfire damage fruit trees?

Here are some of the different types of damage that can occur to fruit trees in a fire:

  • Leaves are scorched and die, but limbs survive
  • Trees are burnt and die
  • Trees are affected by radiant heat, killing the cambium layer in the trunk and limbs
  • Trunks are ringbarked by the vegetation burnt around the base of the tree
  • Older trees can be damaged through embers lodging on the bark or in the crotch of the tree
  • Root systems sometimes survive even though the tops have been killed
  • Root systems are damaged by burning organic matter or heat in the rootzone
  • Fruit is scorched or baked
  • Irrigation lines and emitters are destroyed
  • Defoliated trees can have limbs sunburnt after the fire

In our experience of fire and fruit trees, that list (which comes from Agriculture Victoria) is pretty much spot on!

We saw most of those outcomes in the 300 or so trees that were burned in our orchards.

A fully-laden plum tree that was burned in the fire
A fully-laden plum tree that was burned in the fire

Immediate care for your fruit trees after a fire

The first thing you need to do after a fire is to assess your fruit trees as soon as possible. As hard as it is, you need to try to decide whether they’re likely to live or die. If you’re not sure, give them the benefit of the doubt in the early stages.

Here are our top 5 tips to help you take the next steps:

  1. Check the cambium layer under the bark and see if it still looks healthy. See whether the bark is shrivelling. In the week or two after the fire, look for signs of new shoots starting to emerge.
  2. Remove any remaining fruit to prevent pest and disease build-up and unwanted stress on the trees.
  3. If the irrigation system was damaged, re-establish it ASAP— if you think the trees are worth saving. If they’re not, then salvage anything re-usable from the irrigation system to re-use when you replant your trees;
  4. Delay pruning until regrowth has been established (possibly the following spring), so you can clearly see where there is new growth and dead wood.
  5. You may need to protect trees from sunburn if they’ve been completely defoliated. Use shade cloth or paint the trunk and branches with whitewash.

Asking for (and accepting) help

After our fire, we put out a call for help to the community to help us with #2. There was a lot of fruit left on the trees, and some of it was still quite usable, but it wasn’t good enough for us to harvest and sell.

Red peaches on a tree with burnt leaves and the ground in the background is blackened from the fire
Perfectly usable (but not saleable) peaches on a fruit tree that’s been burnt

The job of removing all the burnt fruit was just too distressing and daunting to manage by ourselves.

In the typical response that communities tend to experience in disaster situations, we were overwhelmed with offers of help.

Within a week or so of the fire, we organised a clean-up day. The volunteers that came to help managed to clear all 300 trees in the day. They took home any fruit that was salvageable, and we also collected some generous donations for our local CFA.

Volunteers cleaning up fruit from fire-damaged trees
Volunteers cleaning up fruit from fire-damaged trees

Long term recovery for fruit trees after a fire

Sadly, many trees just died after the fire. However, some survived, and a few trees that weren’t too badly damaged even started putting out new shoots within a few weeks.

New shoots growing on a burned fruit tree that in time will replace the wood that was burned
New shoots growing on a burned fruit tree that in time will replace the wood that was burned

The following spring, some of the burnt trees flowered OK, even if they’d experienced quite a lot of damage to their wood.

Plum trees flowering the spring after the fire
Plum trees flowering the spring after the fire

Other trees re-shot from the rootstock (if they were severely burned on top or ringbarked).

Suckers shooting from a peach tree that was badly burnt in the fire
Suckers shooting from a peach tree that was badly burnt in the fire

Lessons from the fire

So, what did we learn?

Our main “take-home” lesson was that if you’re going to remove a tree, do it sooner rather than later. Unless the tree is stone-cold dead it’s likely to re-shoot, which may trick you into thinking it’s worth your time to try to nurse it back to health, even if it’s not.

One of the worst consequences was in trees that were badly burned around the base. If they survived, they usually re-shot at the tops of the branches. Some of them ended up with quite vigorous growth, but it was all high in the tree. The result was trees that grew much less fruit than before, and where all the fruit grew high in the tree where it was harder to manage.

In retrospect, these trees should probably have been removed immediately.

As hard as it is to hear, the truth is that if your tree has been badly burned it’s probably better to cut your losses and start fresh with a new tree. It can take years for a burnt tree to recover completely, and even then it may never function as well as before the fire.

Sharing our experience

Our other main lesson is that fruit trees are incredibly resilient!

We were able to save a few trees that had only been mildly burned. They re-shot so vigorously that it gave us plenty of opportunity to prune away the damaged wood and leave new shoots that grew into replacement limbs.

If you find yourself in this situation, please just follow the pruning principles in the Pruning Mature Fruit Trees course. The principles of removing fire-damaged wood from your trees are pretty much the same as removing disease-damaged wood.

We also learned that we’re pretty resilient. After the initial shock, we were able to get on with things really quickly, particularly because we received excellent support from the community.

We were also extremely fortunate that we received some compensation for our losses from the insurance company. That made a huge difference to our capacity to clear up trees and get on with our recovery.

We sincerely hope that you never have to go through a bushfire. But the reality of climate change is that summers are getting hotter and fires are getting worse.

If you do find yourself in this situation, we trust our experience will help you take the first steps to recovering your fruit trees.

Clean feet and legs that are dirty with black ash from the fire showing distinct sock marks
Black ash from the fire makes for serious sock marks for Ant!

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