Natural-Born Killer

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This past July and August saw wildfires rampage across Oklahoma, destroying homes and more than 100,000 acres of land across dozens of counties, including nearly 60,000 acres in Creek County alone. For State Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-Oklahoma City), there is one villain that stands out among the myriad factors involved in the wildfires that are becoming more and more common here: the Eastern Red-cedar tree.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture describes the Eastern Red-cedar as an invasive, weedy tree. Once found primarily in the hills of eastern Oklahoma, the tree has spread west, overtaking pasture and grazing lands. According to Morrissette, it also plays a dangerous role in wildfires.

“The Eastern Red-cedar played a major role,” Morrissette emphatically attests. “When they burn, they blow up like a bomb. The sap acts like a propellant.”

Morrissette, who has introduced legislation to control the spread of the tree, warns that too little is being done by state agencies to address the issue.

“At OSU in Stillwater they’ve done some mapping and various things to get a number of Red-cedars,” Morrissette says. “But we shouldn’t have to count every tree before we do something. We’ve been too reactionary so far. We wait until the fires have started to even talk about the problem.”

Still, there are those who believe the cedar’s role in wildfires is overstated. Oklahoma State Forester George Geissler says that while the tree plays a role, it’s far from the chief factor.

“The idea that the Eastern Red-cedar is the largest, most dangerous factor in wildfires is absolutely false,” Geissler says. “It is way down on the list of contributing factors in the wildfires we’ve seen this summer.”

According to Geissler, a bigger problem has been poor land management. 

“A few years ago when we had the major ice storms across the state,” Geissler says, “there were so many trees that lost limbs, and in many cases those limbs have remained where they fell. Combine that with undergrowth, and all of that is fuel for fires. Add to that the drought we’ve had. Where a tree will normally have 10 to 15 percent moisture, now it will have five to eight percent. What you have is a load of seasoned wood.”

Geissler claims the fires that burned through Mannford, Noble and Luther were hardly affected by cedars.

“(Those) fires were fueled by cross timbers, which are made up of blackjacks and post oaks,” he explains. “If you have a Red-cedar in the middle of a fire, it will burn. But if you limb up the trees around your home and driveway, you’ll be lessening the risk on your home. I’ve seen areas where fires have burned that Red-cedars have been limbed up and are still standing.”

Geissler agrees there is a need for controlling the Eastern Red-cedar, but he believes that focusing solely on the tree in regards to wildfire prevention does Oklahomans a disservice.

“If you only blame the Red-cedar, you make people feel overwhelmed by what they can do,” Geissler says. “A homeowner can do a number of things to make his home safer. You start by limbing up your trees and keeping your lawns cut and cleaned.”

But Morrissette isn’t convinced and continues his crusade to stem the advance of the Eastern Red-cedar. His bill was defeated in the senate, but he is working on new language in hopes of having it passed soon. 

“I’m convinced the governor is on board, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” Morrissette says. “Sometimes politics gets in the way of solutions.”

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