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When a Tree Falls – Tree Risks on Your Rural Property

by Victoria Gazeley

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Well, we had an exciting afternoon recently! 

When you live in the forest, you get used to falling trees and branches flying around when the wind picks up, but we recently had a day that was a bit more dramatic than usual.

A storm blew through one afternoon last week from the north – a very unusual direction for our little protected hollow tucked between two hills.  Needless to say, our trees aren’t really used to a breeze from that direction, and one showed a particular weakness. 

I was inside working and kept hearing a loud “CRACK”, every 30 seconds or so when the wind gusted. 

Then it got louder. 

And louder.

Thinking I should probably identify the tree so I could figure out what direction it might fall (and if we should be hightailing it out of there), we opened the front door just in time to see it fall in slow motion (as falling trees are wont to do), shattering into pieces across the driveway and a section of our split rail fence.

A bit of a mess?  Absolutely.  But little damage, thank goodness.

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In this part of the world, we have a lot of western hemlock, red alder and broadleaf maple – three species notorious for falling on unsuspecting homesteads and their assorted outbuildings!  The alders and maples tend to rot at a relatively young age, and the hemlocks have extremely shallow root systems that give way in the combination of heavy rain and wild winds.  And as you are probably assuming by this point, our little cabin is surrounded by all three.

Hazard Tree Assessment for Your Rural Property

First off, let me say that I have a big space in my heart for big, old, deciduous trees (maples, oaks, a lot of the exotic street trees, and even our local alder).  They’re so beautiful and poetic – an invitation to go sit underneath with a good book and while the afternoon away.  A place for kids to climb and play.  A gorgeous addition to the landscape, providing shade in the summer and windbreaks in the winter.  Before we moved to the country, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to cut one down.

Now, after being here in the forest going on 3 years, I get it.

Around here, deciduous tend to rot out or become unstable at a fairly young age, so having a specimen of advanced age anywhere near a building is just asking for trouble.  So how do we attempt to stay safe and not end up a statistic at worst, or with a crushed roof, car, chicken house or other outbuilding?

So far we’ve been extremely lucky.  In the summer of 2010 we had a maple just about take my son and I out when we were playing catch on the lawn.  It actually fell on the roof of the cabin, but I guess the angle of the tree and roof (or something) meant only minor dents to the metal chimney cap and the rain gutter on that side of the building.  So as you can imagine, we quickly called in the local licensed tree guy to do some ‘trimming’. 

Apparently, we didn’t ask him to go far enough.

So here’s what the experts recommend looking for in trees around our home and outbuildings in order to assess safety for the winter winds (preferably before winter!):

  • Dead tops and branches – These are the ones that can skewer you and your livestock if they break off in a windstorm, and are the signs of possible disease and instability.  They are incredibly dangerous and should be removed, not only for immediate safety reasons, but because removing  it allows for a clean, solid layer of natural bark to form.  What does natural bark do for a tree?  It acts as a barrier and protects the tree from insect infestation and rot. This means the tree is less susceptible to disease, is less of a fire hazard, and, well, it looks better!
  • Species that commonly fall in windstorms in your area -  Each region will have a different tree that’s well known for danger.  Keep an eye on these ones.  Often they’ll be sound for a long, long time – but other times, not so much.
  • Heavy branches or trees hanging over utility lines or right over your house or outbuildings - These should be removed or seriously trimmed.
  • Heavily branched trees with a lot of ‘windsail’ – Consider having all trees around buildings trimmed out to reduce ‘windsail’, which is the effect of branches providing resistance against winds and creating a perfect storm (no pun intended!) for trees crashing to the ground… or on your roof.
  • Signs of disease or instability- Of course, this will vary from region to region and species to species, so it’s good to learn at least a little bit about the trees in your area and what a healthy one looks like versus one that’s seen better days.  Some things to look for are (Source: savatree.com):
    • cavities or rotten wood along the trunk or major branches
    • mushrooms around the base
    • cracks or splits in the trunk
    • dead or dying trees nearby
    • a noticeable lean to the trunk
    • broken or damaged roots
    • construction or projects nearby that may have altered the roots
    • removal of adjacent trees
    • heavy topping or pruning
  • Storm damage - After each wind storm, check all your trees again.  High winds can create brand new hazards to contend with.

As with anything to do with rural living, it really does pay to spend a bit of time learning about your surroundings and what is ‘normal’ versus what might constitute a hazard.  While your chances of being killed or injured by a falling tree or branches is really low, the same can’t be said for your outbuildings, vehicles and equipment.  You’ve made a big investment in your dream life – it’s worth spending a few minutes a few times a year to make sure it’s protected.

Now, as for getting the job done, please don’t borrow your neighbour’s chainsaw and tackle the job yourself (unless you’re a trained tree maintenance specialist with all the proper equipment).  Tree maintenance and removal is a very dangerous business, even for the professionals, and really should be left to the people who know what they’re doing.  My dad is an ex-logger, and even he won’t touch some of the ones around our place  (though he’s been very helpful and generous in coming down and cleaning up the fallen trees for us!).

So yes, we’ll be calling in the tree service contractor shortly…  that or just waiting for the trees to fall down on their own.  Kidding – not recommended.  At all.

How to Find a Tree Removal and Maintenance Service

For this job, you want someone who knows what they are doing. There are good tree service companies and really bad tree service companies (tree butchers, really).  The good ones are well trained and leave your trees healthy, safe and visually attractive.   The butchers?  Well, you’ve probably seen their work – they’re the ones who come in and your property either looks like a moonscape when they’re done, or the trees are so messed up there’s no way they’ll ever be healthy again and actually constitute more of a hazard than they were before the work was done.  And you’re out a few hundred bucks to boot.

So, what should you look for in a contractor? 

  • References from friends and neighbours – This is bar none the best way to get the most professional and expert service in a rural area.  Your neighbours will know which contractors will actually show up when they say they’re going to (a big problem in many rural communities – they run on a different time scale, I think), and who know what they’re doing.  Much better than checking online (many companies in rural communities still don’t have websites, though the bigger, more well organized ones will – I guess that’s something else to look for!), or the Yellow Pages.
  • Licences, training and insurance – Depending on where you live, this will obviously vary, but you want to make sure whoever is doing the job is trained and insured.  Should something happen to the worker on your property as a result of maintaining your trees, you don’t want to be held responsible from a legal perspective.
  • Visibly well maintained equipment – Obviously if you’re not familiar with these things, this will be a bit difficult, but the guy who shows up to fall or trim your trees in a rusty old truck with no markings, no safety equipment and running shoes is likely not your guy.
  • And of course, great customer relations -  You can learn a lot from a good tree service professional that will help protect your property for years to come.

The Wrap-up

So, a few times a year (once at the beginning of each season is a good rule of thumb), and again after a big storm, check the trees around your buildings for damage or potential problems.  If you simply don’t need one more thing on your to-do list, call one of the companies you’ve sussed out using the checklist above – many will come out and do an assessment for free or minimal cost.  Whatever you do, just get it done – your investments are worth it!

And once you’ve finished all that, you can relax for the winter.  Until the power goes out and your water lines freeze, of course…

Do you have any experiences with crashing trees that others might learn from?  If so, we’d love to hear from you!  Share it in the comments section

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Moon November 14, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Victoria, great, useful article.  We had to pay over $2,000 to have a tree removed next to our house.  When we moved there in 1976 it was pretty small and we could have easily removed it ourselves but we hated to cut it down because it provided needed shade.  Well, 35 years later, it was so big with heavy branches directly over the master bedroom that it was definitely dangerous so we had to contact the tree removal company.  It was a big price to pay for neglecting to take care of it earlier.

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Victoria Gazeley November 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Yikes! That’s a big bill! Trees are so beautiful, it’s hard to think of removing them, but flash forward 30 years and it’s a whole different ball game. Thanks for sharing, Pat – we do learn a lot from each other… :)

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Victoria Gazeley November 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Yikes! That’s a big bill! Trees are so beautiful, it’s hard to think of removing them, but flash forward 30 years and it’s a whole different ball game. Thanks for sharing, Pat – we do learn a lot from each other… :)

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Tess Pennington November 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Hey there!

Great article and thanks for sharing. We tend to forget how many dangers there are w/ falling trees. BTW – Tell your son he did a tremendous job on the video. Loved it.

Tess

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Victoria Gazeley November 20, 2011 at 8:46 am

Thanks so much, Tess! I’ll let him know. Thanks so much for visiting… :)

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