Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trees After a Storm

While looking at pictures of the aftermath of this year's hurricanes (and the season's not over yet), I was struck by the number of trees toppled and torn by the 100+ mph winds. I was reminded of the trees we lost around here after the 2011 floods (although ours took a year or two to die from drowning - a tree's roots need air) and the damage I've seen tornadoes do to homesteads and wood-lots.

Most of us like having trees around. They provide shade in the summer, firewood for the winter, and we hate to see them destroyed by hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. Trees are often symbols of permanence and strength, and it is disquieting to see them chewed up like a dog toy. Fruit and nut trees can provide food in small lots and income when planted in larger numbers. There are a lot of reasons to like trees.

So, what do you do after the storm has passed and you begin to survey the damage so you can make a plan for the future?

Safety First!
  • Be on the lookout for trees and branches in contact with power lines. There is no easy way to tell if a power line is “live” or not, and wet wood makes a fair conductor of electricity. If you see trees in the power lines, call the experts.
  • Unless you have experience felling trees, leave the standing or leaning trees to the experts. Broken branches stuck in a standing tree are often called “widow-makers” for good reason - they are unpredictable and dangerous to clear. Leaning trees will have unnatural stresses on the trunks and they may not react to cutting as you expect them to. Work from the top down if at all possible to avoid having a trunk release the pressure from a twisting or tilting stress in a way that is unexpected.
  • Use your personal protective equipment (PPE). Safety glasses, gloves, hearing protection with power tools, and Kevlar chaps if you're running a chainsaw. Keep non-workers a safe distance away; you don't want to get hurt or injure a bystander and add to the load on emergency services. (We've covered this before in various posts about firewood.)

Clear the Paths
  • Roads and walkways should have priority over yards; you're going to need the roads to get help in and out, and at the very least having a cleared path will make it easier to get rid of the debris. The only exception I can think of is if you have or expect looters and would prefer to make their travel more difficult. Some would consider clearing the roads for looters “hunting over bait” and therefore unsporting, but that's a personal decision.
  • Clear the area around where you're going to be working. Less clutter means fewer things to trip over, which is always a good idea when you're dealing with cutting tools. Having helpers keep the area cleared as you cut a tree into manageable pieces will speed things up and is a good use of unskilled labor.

Know How to Dispose of the Debris
  • In the aftermath of a major storm there is always a huge pile of debris to get rid of. Locally, we see this after every ice storm and tornado. Tree limbs and branches are often piled and burned at centralized locations in order to prevent hundreds of smaller, less well-watched fires from causing further damage. This also gives some control over the smoke produced by burning green wood, since it will be coming from a single source which is usually well away from where people are living.
  • If there are no centralized services available (yard waste collection), you may have to set up a “burn pile” on your own property. Think of it as a huge campfire and build it with the smaller pieces on the bottom and the larger ones on top. This will allow the heat from the smaller pieces burning to rise past the large ones, giving them a chance to dry out enough to burn with less smoke.
  • If you have a wood chipper, composting the debris is a good option. Even just putting a layer of wood chips down around the base of healthy trees is better than burning wood for the sole purpose of disposing of it. Wood chips will help hold in moisture and keep down weed growth, and they tend to make it easier to mow around trees as well.

I'm going to talk to an arborist friend soon and will try to get some professional advice on how to decide if a tree is too damaged to survive, so I'll cover that process in a separate post. They might grow into weird shapes, but trees are pretty resilient to damage from what I've seen.

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