28 January 2022

Canberra's great trees are a risk worth having, and managing

| Ian Bushnell
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Fallen tree

A familiar scene in Canberra this season. Photo: Supplied, ESA.

We all love trees until they fall on a house, car or, God forbid, a person.

This summer’s particularly volatile storm season has laid bare the dark side of living in the bush capital – that every now and then you will not only hear a tree fall in the forest but you might actually be clobbered by one.

In fact, you could call it the ‘summer of the chainsaw’ as State Emergency Service crews answered hundreds of calls.

It has prompted a squall of comments about the usual but by no means only culprit, the eucalypt, which are referred to by some as ‘widow makers’.

But as they make up 60 per cent of the urban forest, it’s probably no surprise that they are the most common tree to be blown over or to lose a branch in a storm, especially if it has been a rainy season or soils are compacted.

READ ALSO Do eucalypts belong in the suburbs?

It’s been a tough couple of seasons for our City Services (TCCS) agency as it throws all it has and more at the relentless grass threatening to envelop whole suburbs and frantically plants more trees to regenerate the ageing urban forest.

Now it has got some free advice from the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which dismissed a compensation claim from a motorist whose car crumpled in the face of a flying branch from a large mature tree that has called city car park home for many years.

TCCS may have got off scot-free when it came to paying for any damages, but ACAT said it should be doing more to inspect older trees in high-traffic areas such as car parks to prevent falling limbs making a mess of someone’s car or worse.

Indeed it raised the spectre of a person being injured, finding that the risk was significant.

If the applicant had found an expert to challenge the TCCS’s expert witness, one of its arborists, who told ACAT the fallen branch could not have been reasonably foreseen, the outcome may have been different.

TCCS said it couldn’t possibly inspect every one of the 760,000 trees in its charge, and ACAT agreed, but in well-worn areas, it was a risk it needed to manage.

That is something it should take on board if it wishes to avoid a damages claim next time, especially if the applicant is more tenacious and resourced.

It’s also good advice for property owners who may worry about those great old trees in and around their yards and think the only solution is to take them down.

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The ACT Government’s approach to tree management is a conservative one, in that removal is not a first option.

That is a good thing, but TCCS and householders can do their bit to help avoid damage and injury by deploying arborists to identify what attention a tree might need to avoid damage or injury.

Where new trees are planted and selecting appropriate species will also help.

But the only way to avoid any tree from dropping a branch or falling is to not have trees, and that is just not an option, especially when their value, beyond aesthetics and as habitat for birds and animals, will only increase in a warming climate.

Canberra without its urban forest and great trees would be so much the poorer. All we can do is manage the risk the best we can.

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Yeah, tree protection mandates not a great idea as the council is taking responsibility and negative consequences out of the landowners hand into it’s own…
And god help us during the fire season when the next drought swings by.

Capital Retro7:04 am 07 Feb 22

George Watling you are wrong about no one being killed in Canberra by a falling tree/limb.

Without referring to records of same I recall a man being killed in Curtin and a young girl being killed at a school at O’Connor. I am (sadly) sure there have been more.

Both incidents involved eucalypts.

Didn’t a fallen tree branch kill a Black Mountain peninsula cyclist just a few weeks ago.

If we don’t have native trees then we can no longer call Canberra the bush capital. Prior to white settlement this region was covered with eucalypts.

Here we go again. I’m predicting plenty of anti gum tree responses and a few from people who think they are ok. People’s opinions are rusted on. We could just copy and paste from previous articles.

Here is a alternative thought. Why not allow home owners automatic approval to remove gums from their properties, subject to another species being planted on their block or allowing them to make a reasonably sized donation towards public reforestation?

I’d like to be able to remove my street tree too (well, actually, the Government’s street tree), because they don’t maintain it or get up on my roof and clean out my gutters, but that’s pushing the envelope a bit too far I fear.

HiddenDragon6:56 pm 28 Jan 22

As the old saying goes “distance lends enchantment to the view”, and that often seems to be the case with Canberra’s big trees – they’re nice to look at, and write about, and even get passionately emotional about, when other people are living with the problems they cause, and the dangers they present.

It’s fair enough that trees on public land, which are not threatening someone’s home, should be given the benefit of the doubt, but where there is heightened risk – e.g. near a bus stop or a high use car park, there should be greater care and if current resources don’t permit that, then our (supposedly) tree-loving government should increase funding accordingly.

In cases where permission to lop or remove a tree on private land is refused, the government should hold itself to the same standard that it enthusiastically applies to employers through workers’ compensation and, in the worst cases, industrial manslaughter laws. Clear, enforceable accountability for such decisions should do wonders to focus the hearts and minds, and get the sort of balance in this area of public administration that many long-suffering Canberra home owners deserve.

There is a good reason why our early settlers planted deciduous trees near their houses. We need to get away from this myth that because gum trees are indigenous that we should have to put up with them next to our house. Global warming and the use of rooftop solar panels is another reason. The same goes for large pine and cypress trees. The enhanced bush fire risks from both types is an additional reason.

We have three gum trees close to the street – probably in TCSS’s area, and I wouldn’t be without them. Yes, there’s a risk.

Virginia Dodson11:58 am 28 Jan 22

The ignorant practice of putting bitumen up to the base of many trees in Canberra public places is hard to understand and guarantees that any tree will be compromised. It is false economy to neglect established street trees during a drought. The amount of damage they do when they become unhealthy, the cost involved in felling them and the urban warming caused after their removal are all good reasons for looking after them in the first place. The number of large, relatively young trees of any species that are pronounced ‘ at the end of their life’ and wind up as mulch for their more fortunate fellows at the Arboretum is ridiculous. Other cities can care for their urban forest. Canberra just cuts them down. Conversely, if you have a dangerous tree in your back yard, good luck getting permission to remove it.

Stephen Saunders11:09 am 28 Jan 22

Welcome to Australia, the OECD nation that encourages citizens to hate their own native flora. Welcome to its “bush” capital whose main tourist attractions are a giant arboretum and a tulip festival. Where all exotics over 12m are protected.

Sure, don’t sell or plant big ukes in Canberra, how hard is that? Give landowners open permission to cull dangerous ones. That only leaves hundreds of distinctive small uke species with forgiving foliage and beautiful flowers that we can safely plant.

Oak trees sure are “resilient”. They rain mountains of painful acorns. They shed truckloads of harsh leaves that don’t mulch. The leaves drift into big soggy piles that block drains and render footpaths impassable. Thanks, Charles Weston.

Big trees too near houses can be a problem – the tree or branches falling, and they make gardens impractical in many areas because they such up so much water. However, there are many many areas in urban Canberra that could have more trees. Car parks, for instance. Where unshaded, these black surfaces raise the temperature significantly on sunny days. There are things that can be done to make trees in car parks do much better. One is to have castellated kerbing [first time I’ve written that word] and the soil level around the tree lower than the bitumen. This allows water to pond temporarily around the tree. The build up of organic matter over time also makes the soil much better. The government could make such features compulsory in new car parks, and required, over time, in all car parks. Median strips and many nature strips also have great treeing potential – which would also mean less need for mowing.

I agree but (a) we need to think more about the kinds of eucalypts we plant (and having lost power for four days earlier this month, I would put a question mark over Nicholiis and Sideroxylons) and (b) don’t plant them too close to power lines.

Nonsense. The author negligently fails to acknowledge that gum trees are more prone to catching alight because of their oil content than deciduous trees. Gum trees are also more likely to split and fall during storms, as we have all witnessed. Large gum trees species are totally unsuitable as suburban street trees. Oak trees are more resilient and there are many other more suitable trees to plant.
TCCS should be held accountable for trees that the public report as dangerous, particularly when it has failed to act on a report of a dangerous tree on Fix My Street. For example, the report of a very large tree branch hanging right over a busy bus stop where kids wait. A year later that branch is still there, even deader than before, waiting to fall.

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