How the Urban Forest Strike Teams Began

U.S. Forest Service helped with training and development

The Urban Forest Strike Teams (UFSTs) are a means for city foresters, state foresters, commercial arborists, and others to quickly come to the aid of a region whose urban forest has been impacted by a natural disaster. Here’s the backstory. 

UFST team specialists discuss tree loss (and near miss!) with homeowner after Hurricane Gustav. Photo courtesy of Urban Forestry Strike Teams.
UFST team specialists discuss tree loss (and near miss!) with homeowner after Hurricane Gustav. Photo courtesy of Urban Forestry Strike Teams.

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel cut a devastating path across Virginia, leaving lots of damaged trees in its wake. Several of the Tidewater cities were hit hard. Further inland, the state capitol of Richmond lost more than 10,000 public trees. Between 2002 and 2005, North Carolina and South Carolina suffered several hurricanes that also caused tremendous tree damage and loss.

Urban foresters were frustrated that there was no way to adequately respond to these disasters in order to qualify for FEMA reimbursement. Even communities with established urban forestry programs lacked the staff or a methodology to document tree damage in a timely manner, given all the other clean-up activities that were taking place. Similarly, state forestry agencies lacked a method for assisting communities from an urban forestry perspective.

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused widespread tree damage in the Gulf States. One of the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina was that contractors destroyed thousands of healthy trees in the aftermath of the storm.

The Urban Forestry Coordinators of Virginia and North Carolina, Paul Revell and Leslie Moorman, decided that some sort of urban response capability needed to be developed by state agencies in advance of the next disaster. They consulted the U. S. Forest Service for assistance. Dudley Hartel, then a technology transfer specialist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS), was eager to help. He had assisted several communities after Hurricane Katrina and was ready to use his experience to develop a storm response methodology.

Hartel, now center manager of SRS Urban Forestry South, and Eric Kuehler, a fellow SRS technology transfer specialist, developed the first training program for state agency personnel held in Kinston, North Carolina, in August 2007.

Hartel and Kuehler developed a methodology that used FEMA criteria for recording reimbursable tree damage and GPS to accurately map the location of each damaged tree. Trees were marked with paint that specified either pruning or removal. Arboricultural standards were used to evaluate the relative risk of each tree. Tree data was recorded on drop-down menus in a GPS data recorder and transferred to maps and tables each day that could be presented to FEMA and local officials. Participants in the training were required to be ISA Certified Arborists.

Response to communities experiencing storm damage would be at the request of the affected communities, encouraged by the state urban forestry coordinator. Large storm events would call for a deployment of a 13-person team including five 2-person task specialist crews, 2 team leaders, and 1 GIS specialist. Smaller or more localized storm events could be responded to with an appropriate staff of personnel. On a deployment, Incident Command System (ICS) protocols would be used, as ICS is familiar to state forestry agency personnel who respond to wildfires.

The response teams were dubbed “Urban Forest Strike Teams” (UFSTs) and the name has stuck. The mission of the UFSTs, developed in the first training, is to:

  • Assist communities in documenting tree damage for FEMA reimbursement,
  • Provide a risk ranking on all trees examined,
  • Identify especially hazardous trees that need immediate attention,
  • Recommend pruning, etc., for trees identified for retention, and
  • Provide detailed maps and tables of recorded trees to local officials and FEMA.

It was not long after the first training that UFSTs were put to the test. A devastating ice storm struck northeastern Oklahoma in December 2007. Oklahoma Urban Forestry Coordinator Mark Bays contacted several affected communities and offered assistance. UFSTs responded in February 2008 after the initial clean up and worked with several communities, notably the City of Tulsa, in documenting tree damage. Local FEMA officials were engaged and were pleased with the documentation provided.

In January 2009, another devastating ice storm hit the states of Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky. UFST crews responded to several communities in Arkansas and Kentucky over a four-week period. Since 2009 there have been no multi-state devastating storms in the South, although UFSTs have responded in-state to more localized storm events in North Carolina and Virginia. Therefore, the focus of the UFST program has been training and increasing the number of trained individuals in southern state forestry agencies. There have been trainings in Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Because there have been no major deployments in the past few years, it has been necessary to keep UFST skills fresh. To accomplish this, mock exercises were initiated in 2013. The first of these was held in the Tidewater cities of Virginia. The exercise was very successful and was well received in the local cities by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and even by local media that ran several newspaper and TV stories. Significantly, we were able to deploy the UFSTs through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) Coordinators in the participating states. Subsequent mock exercises have been held in Savannah, Georgia and Fayetteville, Arkansas. The mock exercises provide the opportunity to improve on our operations and introduce and test new technology.

Read the full article in Taking Root, the blog of the New York Urban Forestry Council.

More information on the Urban Forest Strike Team Program.

For more information, email Dudley Hartel at dhartel@fs.fed.us.

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