Tree management tips for extreme weather

Protect properties from liability concerns and additional destruction following harsh storms
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
By Craig Southwell

The past year has seen several storm events that have resulted in significant damage to trees in southern Ontario. The ice storm that hit the Greater Toronto Area on Dec. 21, 2013, caused an estimated 20-per-cent loss of canopy cover, and the after effects are still being dealt with on many properties. More localized, yet equally damaging, storms hit the area earlier that year, in the summer of 2013, with violent winds and significant rainfall downing trees and branches.

Such weather events are a part of life, but there are measures a property manager can take to help reduce storm damage to trees and properties. Equally, there are certain activities that should be prioritized immediately following a storm to help reduce the likelihood of further property damage and to address liability concerns.

The best way to protect a property from tree-related storm damage is to properly maintain trees. Have an arborist visit the property annually to inspect the trees and make recommendations for maintenance. Structurally defective trees can be removed along with any poorly positioned trees that could cause problems in the future. Pruning trees to remove defective branches and to maintain clearance from buildings can reduce the likelihood of property damage in the event of a catastrophic event such as an ice storm.

Keep records of tree inspections and maintenance on the property. In the event of damage to third-party property, such records may be vital in defending a claim, as they prove the property owner acted reasonably in the management of the tree stock. Good records can also be used to help the board prioritize spending and set budgets for future tree care.

It is important to understand that the only safe tree is one that has been chopped down and turned into firewood. Even with the best care and regular inspection, a big enough storm can still cause structural failures in trees. Therefore, it is critical to have an emergency plan in place.

Having a good relationship with a tree care company pays dividends immediately following a storm, as most companies are going to prioritize their existing clients. Knowing who to call and having cost outlines in place (e.g. the day rate for a crew) will speed up response times from the contractor. Most good companies will be too busy to respond to non-clients and a property manager may not be in a position to get three competitive quotes.

A condominium corporation’s arborist should be able to help deal with an initial post-storm assessment so that the most urgent work can be completed first, with the aim of getting the property functioning again. Trees and branches blocking driveways and sidewalks, or those threatening buildings, should be dealt with right away, but that tree at the back of the property might be able to wait for a later date to remove — especially if the area beneath it can be closed to prevent access. Such triage (no pun intended!) can save money in the long term.

Immediately following the ice storm, media footage documented well-meaning citizens attempting to clear their streets and properties of fallen trees and branches. If tree damage is extensive and the property’s arborist is not immediately available, it may be tempting to pull that old chainsaw out of the basement and begin the clean-up operation. Even if a property manager understands the dangers of doing this, he or she may have residents who feel that being Canadian in some way qualifies them as lumberjacks.

Resist the temptation to do any more than pull a few branches out of the driveway. Fallen trees and branches are full of tension and compression forces that can result in sudden and often violent releases of energy when cut. Unfortunately, injuries from storm clean-up are often more common than those resulting from a storm itself, so use professional help in the same way one would for any other property emergency.

Photograph tree and property damage before and after the clean-up. This may help with future insurance claims. Dangerous trees may need to be removed but the municipality could still require exemption permits either before or after the work. A good photographic record will help avoid bylaw transgressions.

When the clean-up has been completed and repairs made, arrange for a re-assessment of the trees on the property. Important specimens may need different care — such as structural pruning, fertilization and pest and disease management — for a few years following damage. Some trees may not be worth the investment required for retention and their removal and replacement should be planned and budgeted.

Trees provide many benefits to a property and the wider environment, but they must be managed like any other asset. Be proactive in tree management and have plans in place to deal with those storms when they come. Property managers cannot influence when a storm will happen, but they can help to reduce its impact on a property.

Craig Southwell is an ISA Certified Arborist with more than 20 years’ experience in residential and commercial tree care in North America and the United Kingdom. He is the Ontario manager for Bartlett Tree Experts and is also a director of the Ontario Commercial Arborists Association. Craig can be reached at