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Tragedy in the Tetons

Author(s): Rick Curtis
Posted: July 24, 2011

On July 18, 2011 tragedy struck in the Tetons. A 16-year old participant on an outdoor education program sponsored backpacking trip was killed by a falling tree. According to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“The Teton County Sheriff’s Office received a satellite telephone call at 2:45 p.m. July 18 from Wilderness Ventures, a commercial backpacking company in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that Burns was struck by a falling tree and severely injured. Burns was approximately 66 feet away from the base of the tree helping to set up camp, when other group members attempted to hang food in a “bear bag” in the dead 75-foot tree. Burns, who was kneeling down tending to camp equipment when she was struck, never regained consciousness, witnesses said.”

This is the official press release from the Teton County Sheriff’s Office:

“On Monday July 18, 2011 at 2:45 PM, The Teton County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch center received a call on a satellite telephone from a commercial backpacking company stating that a girl in their group had been struck by a falling tree and was severely injured.

While setting up camp approximately four (4) miles due east of the Turpin Meadow trailhead in the Teton Wilderness, a sixteen-year-old female member of a backpacking group was struck by a falling tree when the tree uprooted as group members were attempting to hang food in a “bear bag” in the tree. The girl, Elizabeth Burns of Lake Forest, Illinois, was tending to camp chores when the approximately 75 foot dead tree struck her. She was approximately 66 feet from the base of the tree. The tree was approximately 24″ in diameter at the base and 9″ in diameter where it hit her. She was kneeling down tending to camp equipment when she was struck.

A helicopter from the Teton Interagency group was flown to the site with Grand Teton Park Search and Rescue members aboard to render aid. According to people at the scene, she never regained consciousness after being struck. The girl was pronounced dead at the scene at 1635 hours. She suffered numerous injuries but the suspected cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.

The remaining members of the backcountry camping group hiked out with the assistance of the park rangers to the Togwotee Mountain Lodge where they were met by crisis counselors from Grand Teton National Park. The Togwotee Mountain Lodge provided lodging for the rest of the group for the night.”

Our condolences go out to the family and fiends of the victim and to all those involved in the program.

This incident is sadly reminiscent of a tree branch death in Australia that took place on a high school camping trip run by an outdoor education program in Victoria in August 2005.

These incidents are a stark reminder of some of the ‘less visible’ hazards in the outdoors.I experienced this some years ago on a backpacking trip through our program when a group hung a bear bag on a branch late at night. In the dark it wasn’t clear to the group that the branch was dead. As the bear bag was hauled up the branch broke hitting one of the participants in the head resulting in a scalp laceration. To compound the incident the dead branch contained a bees nest and when the branch hit the ground and broke open a hive of angry bees emerged and several participants got stung. Luckily there were no serious injuries from this. Analysis of the incident led us to implement new bear bagging protocols.

Dead branches or dead trees can be the result of blights or infections such as the Mountain Pine Beetle which has killed huge stands of trees in the American West. I urge everyone to be vigilant in assessing this hazard. Here are a few important resources to help you assess these hazards for your program.

Andrew Brookes, a professor at the School of Outdoor Education and Environment,La Trobe University, Bendigo, Australia in identifies the following factors to consider when assessing the hazards associated with trees:

Assessing trees:

  • Tree health
    • Is the tree alive or dead?
    • Are there dead branches or other visible signs of ill-health – dead leaves or twigs at the end of branches?
    • Are there visible signs of rot or fungal attack on the trunk?
    • Are there dead or sagging branches?
    • Are there signs of ageing?
    • Are there signs of coppicing or epicormic regrowth? (Branches that have grown following damage or stress might
      be more weakly attached than branches that form part of a tree’s original structure)
  • Tree structure
    • Is the tree balanced or leaning? Is any lean due to damage?
    • Assess the size and relative weight.
    • Are there structural weaknesses such as co-dominant forks with included bark2?
    • Are there visible signs of damage to roots, trunk, or branches, such as wounds, cracks, or bulges?
      Does any damage observed compromise structure (for example root damage on one side, or loss of branches on one side)?
    • Has the soil been softened by rain?
    • Is the soil cracked or bulging?
    • Are there any loose branches suspended in the canopy?
  • Assessing location
    • What areas are at risk from falling branches?
    • What areas are at risk from the whole tree falling? (Distance estimation)
    • Is the tree particularly susceptible to wind loading from any particular direction?
    • Does the tree have a large “sail” area (wind load)?
    • Have tracks, clearing, or other works changed the way the tree has grown, or altered wind loads?
  • Weather
    • What is the forecast
      • Rain softening the ground
      • Snow or ice loading
      • Wind loading
      • Rain loadings on canopy
      • Wind direction
    • What previous weather events might have affected trees
      • Long dry spells
      • Sodden ground

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