Southern California's palm trees 'explode into a giant torch' and could make fire season even more dangerous. – SFGATE
Over the last decade, there have been numerous accounts of “exploding” palm trees, particularly throughout the Los Angeles, San Diego and Coachella Valley areas.
Every year during the apex of wildfire season, California’s most well-known icons erupt into raging balls of hellfire.
Over the last decade, there have been numerous accounts of “exploding” palm trees, particularly throughout the Los Angeles, San Diego and Coachella Valley areas. Subsequently, the famous trees, which “go up like Roman candles,” have sparked rumors online that they either self-immolate or combust due to extreme heat. While neither of these speculations are true, research scientists and fire department officials throughout Southern California say that they pose a very real threat regardless – and could make year-round fire season even more dangerous in California.
According to Bloomberg and the Escondido Fire Department, poorly maintained palm trees can “explode into a giant torch” if embers from fireworks, like small bottle rockets, get lodged into them. Power lines and lightning strikes, which recently pummeled California, also cause them to burst into flames, consuming them within minutes. Even scarier, EFD says flaming palm fronds can detach and fly long distances in the wind, potentially igniting other vegetation or structures.
“A lot of times they start because electric wires are crossing through the fronds, and of course what happens is a lot of these trees don’t get pruned so there’s lots of dry vegetation that will spark a fire,” Captain Milton Urquilla of the Los Angeles Fire Department told Bloomberg. “And on the Fourth of July, with the illegal rockets that people use, that’s another avenue for fire to spread.”
Nicholas Prange of the Los Angeles Fire Department says that structure fires, trash fires, car fires and vegetation fires near the base of a tree – especially a dying one – can also make them burn rapidly. However, he says that some of these accounts of “exploding” palm trees are hyperbolic. “‘Burst into flames’ may be too strong a description for how a tree catches fire, as we are not aware of them spontaneously combusting,” he iterated. Regardless, if trees are poorly maintained, they can quickly become a 50-foot-tall fire hazard. “If homeowners let years of dead palm fronds hang, this can be hazardous in wind and fire conditions. Homeowners are required to have these dead fronds removed, as is true for any dead branch or material on any type of tree or shrub,” Prange said.
A document from EFD says that the accumulation of dead palm fronds creates a “skirt” of brown thatch that should be removed each year along with fibrous tissue that needs to be “skinned.” They advise people to be especially wary of palm trees within 100 feet of any structure or 30 feet of a driveway or roadway. More concerning, though, is that Science outlet Eos says that non-native palms – which dominate Southern California – burn more severely than indigenous plants. According to KCET, just one species of palm tree, the Washingtonia filifera, is native to the state.
While it’s unclear how many non-native palm trees are in Los Angeles area, the outlet says that over 25,000 were planted in 1931. The non-native Mexican fan palm is the most common species in the city, while Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island date palm, typically lines wealthy areas like Beverly Hills and Hancock Park.
Because of their proclivity to burn at an alarming pace, power companies in Southern California are preemptively removing some of these iconic trees. In 2021, AP News reported that Southern California Edison, which provides electricity to most of SoCal, plans on removing 11,000 palms that are too close to power lines in service areas in Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, La Canada Flintridge, Malibu, Lake Elsinore and Santa Ana.
“We understand that people living in Southern California love their palms, but since fire season is year-round, they can be a danger to the public,” David Faasua, a vegetation management specialist, told the outlet. “We will inspect vegetation before it’s removed and meet with the property owner in person to discuss the process.”
Luckily, LAFD told SFGATE that the city isn’t gutting theirs anytime soon. “The City of LA values the vegetation within its boundaries, both natural and ornamental,” Prange wrote. “Unless a tree is dead, proper maintenance does not include removal of the entire tree.”
For more information on how to properly plant and maintain vegetation, follow Edison’s detailed safety guide.
The Santa Barbara and the Palm Desert fire departments did not respond to SFGATE’s requests for comment.
SFGATE News Director Amy Graff contributed to this story.