Wildfire prompts worry over fate of 550-year-old ‘Bee Tree’ in Oak Grove

A photo of the Bee Tree, Oak Grove Campground, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — When some St. George area residents learned of the Oak Grove Fire, they wondered whether the “Bee Tree,” a Ponderosa pine that’s estimated to be 550 years old, would survive.

A placard that tells the story of the “Bee Tree.” The diagram to the right shows the major world events that the tree has lived through, Oak Grove Campground, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

The Bee Tree got its name when wild honey bees took up residence in its trunk, and it has seen its share of disasters, natural or otherwise.

“The tree is a member of the fire-adapted species Pinus Ponderosa,” said Kevin Abel, U.S. Fire Service public information officer, who is currently working on the fire. “Historically, the tree has experienced low intensity fires every 5-20 years. So, it naturally knows how to survive a fire.”

Steffan Kelly, a 32-year-old St. George resident, said that the tree’s well-being was on his mind.

“When I heard about that fire,” Kelly told St. George News, “my first thought was, ‘That tree has survived so much. I hope this fire doesn’t take it out.'”

An example of a cross section of Ponderosa pine, with a cat face fire scar and several other scars from frequent previous fires, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

Kelly said that he first visited the Oak Grove Campground when he was 6 years old. He remembers the beauty of the site, the river that runs through it and, of course, the tree.

“My Grandad Jerry Turnbeaugh really loved the tree,” Kelly said. “He said that the tree symbolized the beehive mentality of the pioneers … The way they worked together to survive extreme heat, floods, fires and all that. He saw the tree as a symbol of their perseverance.”

While the tree’s legend may be a mixture of myth and fact, Abel said the tree has survived untold lightning strikes and wildfires, and the Oak Grove Fire is no exception.

“Roughly speaking, the fire came within about 1 and a quarter miles from the Bee Tree,” Abel told St. George News. “The tree is safe as of now.”

The remnants of Hurricane Nora brought some much-needed rain to the area early Wednesday. The south-facing side of Pine Valley Mountain was enshrouded by clouds Wednesday morning, so it was hard to tell whether the fire, which has grown to 696 acres, was still burning.

Abel said that one may be forgiven for thinking that the rain may have put out the fire. Of course, he said, they’d be wrong.

“It’s only about 10% contained as of now,” he said. “The rain really only gets to the surface. It may soak the lawn, but it doesn’t soak the forest.”

“As of right now,” he added, “the fire is burning away from the tree.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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