Hopefully you’ll never need this information, but if this summer is anything to go by, fires are a growing risk.

We’ve had a fire in our orchard, so we want to share our experience about how to help your trees recover.

Watching the fire burn through the orchard
Watching the fire burn through the orchard

Our amazing fire services put the fire out very promptly, and we got away relatively lightly. We lost only about 300 fruit trees, some fences and the irrigation system.

A burnt out fenceline and vegetation
A burnt out fenceline and vegetation

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

Black ash from the fire makes for serious sock marks!
Black ash from the fire makes for serious sock marks!

Here’s some of the different types of damage that can occur to 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 Ag Vic) is pretty much spot on!

We saw most of those outcomes in the 300 or so trees that were burned in our orchards. Some trees survived, some re-shot from the rootstock (if they were severely burned on top or ringbarked), and many just died.

Here’s the main things you need to do to look after fruit trees after a fire:

  1. Assess the trees as soon as possible, and try to decide whether they’re likely to live or die.
  2. Check the cambium layer under the bark and see if it still looks healthy. Check whether the bark is shrivelling, look for signs of new shoots starting to emerge;
  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, 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;
  6. Remove any remaining fruit to prevent pest and disease build-up and unwanted stress on the trees.

After our fire, we put out a call for help to the community to help us with #5, because the job of removing all that fruit was just too daunting.

In the typical response we see in these sort of disaster situations we got a great response! Vollies took home any fruit that was salvageable, and we got some generous donations for our local CFA.

Volunteers helping to strip our burned trees of fruit
Volunteers helping to strip our burned trees of fruit

So, in retrospect, what did we learn?

Plum trees flowering the spring after the fire
Plum trees flowering the spring after the fire
  • That if you’re going to remove a tree, do it sooner rather than later, because 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.
  • If the tree is burned around the base, it may re-shoot high in the tree. It may have lots of vigorous growth, but you’ll end up with a tree that grows all its fruit high in the tree where it’s hard to manage. It’s probably best to remove it.
  • If the tree has been badly burned it’s probably better to cut your losses and start fresh with a new tree. It will probably take years for the tree to recover completely, and even then it may never function as well as before the fire.
  • Fruit trees are incredibly resilient! We were able to save a few trees that had only been mildly burned because they re-shot so vigorously it gave us plenty of opportunity to prune away the damaged wood and leave new shoots that will grow into replacement limbs. The best pruning course to help you with this task is Pruning Mature Fruit Trees, because the principles of removing disease-damaged wood from your trees is pretty much the same as removing fire-damaged wood.
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.

We also learned that we’re pretty resilient, and that 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, which made a huge difference to our capacity to clear up trees and get on with our recovery.

If you’ve found this blog useful and are looking for more helpful tips about how to manage your fruit trees, please visit our online short course library.

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