Meet Your Forest: Be aware of the dangers of hazard trees in the forest |

Meet Your Forest: Be aware of the dangers of hazard trees in the forest

Courtesy of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District
Courtesy of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District |

With the ice and snow melting and little chance we will see great amounts of snow again, spring is awakening in the world around us. Because the forest is damp, if not soaked, decay, as well as regeneration, becomes the focus of our surroundings. During the next few months, topics covered in this column will reflect Summit County’s forest health and ways you can practice safe travel and recreation in our very own (backcountry) back yard.

Dangers of hazard trees

The Forest Service defines a hazard tree as having a potential risk of failure — a tree or part of a tree has a defect (or defects) that makes it predisposed to failure and potential for damage — a tree is located so that failure presents a threat to people or property. Dead, diseased and leaning trees are classified as hazard trees, and the risk posed by these hazard trees is often overlooked.

Dead trees pose a higher-than-usual risk when precipitation is low or when there are large numbers of diseased trees. Dead trees include those killed by beetles, fire, insects and disease, and we should be on the lookout for them. Signs of a disease on a tree are the easiest to spot, especially mushrooms or conks growing on the tree — “perennial fruiting bodies.” They are the evidence of weakened tree structures. Additionally, hanging or broken branches and various materials, including nests, may fall from the trees unexpectedly and without warning. Trees leaning at greater than 10 degrees from vertical are also an obvious problem. They are to be avoided because they pose a high potential of collapse.

Land-management agencies cannot remove all potential hazardous trees in the vast public lands in Colorado. The ranger district removes as many of the hazard trees in developed public-use areas as possible.

What’s your risk?

As visitors, we must be aware of the dangers of hazardous trees and take precautions, especially in the backcountry. When assessing risk, exposure time to hazard trees varies based on the amount of time visitors are in one location.

• Minimal: Hikers spend relatively little time in one place (perhaps one minute).

• Moderate: Picnickers have more exposure (one to several hours).

• Maximum: Campers have the longest exposure (from many hours to many days). Thus, campers have the highest potential to encounter a hazard tree due to many hours/days spent at risk.

To reduce your risk, be observant. Examine trees in your camping or picnic area for evidence of damage, including 1) dead trees, 2) broken or hanging branches, 3) falling debris, 4) signs of disease and 5) trees leaning at greater than 10 degrees from vertical.

Never underestimate the danger posed by small trees, dead trees or tree parts. Be especially cautious in strong winds. Do not bang on or chop at dead trees. Cross-sections as small as 6 inches in diameter have fallen and killed hikers and campers.

• Never picnic or camp close to a dead tree; it could fall at any time.

• Select a safe place to spend the night.

• Place yourself and belongings in safe areas free of the above-mentioned five components.

By avoiding all dead trees, hazardous trees or trees with excessive lean and the danger zones in which they may fall, you can most likely avoid the danger all together.

Staying out of harms way can ensure an excellent adventure. With a clear plan in place and the proper knowledge of our surroundings, the happy memories of a lifetime will be made in our Summit County forestlands.

Jasmine Hupcey is the office and volunteer manager for Friends of the Dillon Ranger District. She can be reached at For more information on the organization and volunteer opportunities, visit

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