17 January 2022

Do eucalypts belong in the suburbs?

| Lottie Twyford
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Fallen gum tree

Some residents say recent storm damage is proof that gum trees don’t belong in the suburbs, but one arborist says that’s too simplistic a view to take. Photo: Jess Tankard.

Following the recent storms which tore through large swathes of the Belconnen and Gungahlin region, many residents have voiced their concerns about the suitability of gum trees for the suburbs.

Giant eucalypts, or gum trees, have earned the nickname ‘widowmakers’ as they tend to drop or shed large branches – often onto cars or houses.

Some residents took to Facebook to share stories of frustration after the storms, saying they had been trying for years to have the gum trees removed by the ACT Government without success.

Others said they were “terrified” of the gum trees out the front of their property and did not think “they have a place in the suburbs”.

“Gumtrees should not be near houses as they drop branches and debris on our cars in the driveway and street constantly,” another resident wrote.

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But level five arborist at Treeworks Steve Griffiths said this analysis was too simplistic.

Mr Griffiths did acknowledge, however, that he and his team have seen gum tree “failure”, which has resulted in property damage.

One reason they are perceived as a threat is they are so common, making up around 60 per cent of the ACT’s tree canopy. But Mr Griffiths explained that failures in gum trees are often due to problems with the soil the trees are growing in rather than an inherent problem with the species.

“The main problem is a lack of drainage,” he explained. “It’s not that the trees are not suitable for the suburbs, but the soil is being compacted by the urban infrastructure.

“In a forest, for example, the water would simply flow away because the soil is very fluffy and porous underneath.”

The more infrastructure there is, the harder it becomes for water to drain away. Periods of heavy rain exacerbate this and can lead to a rotting of the roots. In a big wind, a tree with rotted roots can simply fall over.

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As to what can be done, Mr Griffiths said a focus should be on soil health, including mulching around the base of the tree.

But sometimes, there are structural issues above the ground which mean some trees or branches will be unsafe in storms.

That’s why Mr Griffith said it’s important to call in an arborist to look at any trees or branches you might be concerned about. Any branches which appear to be dying should be removed by a professional.

If a member of the public is concerned about a tree on public land, they can raise the issue with the ACT Government.

According to the City Services website, the ACT Government takes a “conservative approach” to tree removal.

“When a member of the public expresses concern regarding public safety or the health of a tree on public land, a site visit is arranged and the subject tree or trees are assessed by qualified staff,” the site reads.

Region Media has sought comment from the ACT Government.

For more information about tree management, visit City Services.

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Frankly, I don’t think it’s a big issue. I’m a retired volunteer fire-fighter, and I live directly in the path of the 2003 firestorm that went up and over Mt Taylor.

There were then and still are three gum trees facing the street on our block. Neither of them burned in 2003.

I’d certainly like to see some peer reviewed stats on the tree falls in Canberra. I noticed on radio last week the TCCS executive had just started to soften on their earlier claim that Eucalyptuses and Exotics had an even split in the likelihood of damage .
My friends in Hawker had gum trees come down all around them the other week, despite having quite a large percentage of exotic trees around them.
The bad storm that hit us in Deakin a couple of years ago, bought down mainly gum trees and branches (and they are in the minority). The oak trees and atlas cedars coped very well in the storm by comparison.
The winds when we lived in Kambah for the 2003 bushfire bought down way more eucalyptus than other species. Most of the pears, pines, liquidambers, elm and ash trees etc were fine in comparison to the gum trees.

I don’t think TCCS keep proper statistics or even know when residents clean up small eucalypt branches that have dropped.

A Nonny Mouse12:21 pm 25 Jan 22

The Local Government Association of South Australia commissioned an ‘Independent Inquiry into Management of Trees on Public Land’. I downloaded a copy some years ago but can’t find it now.
“Data from the International Tree Failure Database shows that the most commonly reported species in Northern America are Quercus agrifolia (coast live oak) and Pinus radiata (Monterey pine), followed by Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress), Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) and Quercus lobata (valley oak) [42]. When taking into consideration the occurrence of each of these species within the landscape, the incidence of failure for P. radiata and C. macrocarpa is substantially higher than its relative abundance in the population, while eucalyptus and oak species fail at a rate approximately equal to or below their percentage occurrence in the landscape [43].
There has been no systematic and consistent approach for the collection of tree failure data in Australia. Importantly, such databases are only useful for determining the predisposition of a particular tree to failure, if they can be related to the total abundance of each species within the tree population. This is rarely the case.
A survey of E. camaldulensis at a number of sites across Adelaide found that around 2.3% of surveyed trees failed per annum [44]. Mature trees (20-80% of life expectancy) had the highest rate of failure, and had a 1:68.5 probability of dropping a branch with a diameter of 100-300 mm (the branch size most likely to fail). Interestingly, over 73% of trees showed no evidence of branch failure [44].
Corymbia citriodora (lemon-scented gum) is often perceived to have a high propensity to shed branches. Data collected for 95 specimens of this species in NSW revealed that 65% of trees had not lost any branches greater than 100 mm diameter over the previous 10 years [45].”

That’s a really interesting read A nony mous. We deserve to know more research and analysis.

Many of the Oaks and Cedars of Canberra have life expectancy in the 100s of years. As proven through Reid and Forrest

Many of the common Eucalypts around Canberra are less than 50 years.

Google ‘life expectancy for the Eucalyptus sideroxylon‘ which is the common red iron bark planted across Tuggeranong and Belconnen and you’ll get just 25 years. Many others are similar.

So many gumtrees around Tuggeranong and Belconnen have died, fallen over or lost large limbs over the last twenty years.

If the trees were on a proposed light rail line they’d be removed. If they’re next to someone’s house on the other hand. Bad luck.

Not only do gum trees fall over at the drop of a hat but they are also potential bombs ready to explode when a bush fire occurs.Exotics tend to be fire retardants.suburbs full of oaks and that type of tree look so much classier and desirable to live in.The 1970’s when the Tuggeranong Valley was first settled was dominated by native plant fascists and we have had to put up with the consequences ever since.

a very simplistic statement. gums make up a lot of our trees. How many other species of trees had a failure in the storm? I note the comments made in the article but simply to focus on one type of tree? Were there a number of species fail, one species, what other trees?

A few commentators have claimed gum trees are not the species of tree nicknamed “widow maker”.
This article from the ABC might clarify it for you.

George Watling,
I guess that limb that broke our solar hot water panel and the limb that fell onto our pergola and that limb that killed my school teacher are all just part of some anti-nature beat-up?

Capital Retro3:23 pm 23 Jan 22

Free advice to all those who claim all trees drop limbs, not only eucalypti.


I’d certainly like to see some peer reviewed stats on the tree falls in Canberra. I noticed on radio last week the TCCS executive had just started to soften on their earlier claim that Eucalyptuses and Exotics had an even split in the likelihood of severe wind damage .

My friends in Hawker had gum trees come down all around them the other week, despite having quite a large percentage of exotic trees around them.

The bad storm that hit us in Deakin a couple of years ago, bought down mainly gum trees and branches (and they are in the minority). The oak trees and atlas cedars coped very well in the storm by comparison.

The winds when we lived in Kambah for the 2003 bushfire bought down way more eucalyptus than other species. Most of the pears, pines, liquidambers, elm and ash trees etc were fine in comparison to the gum trees.

Whatever the story, big trees within about 10m of houses should be able to be pruned heavily and made safe by owners.

So, in fact, the arborist confirmed that gum trees are not suitable for an urban environment. When he cast doubt on the perception I was thinking he’s about to give some stats for other tree species that confirms his statement. Instead he explains why the urban environment is not suitable for eucalypts.

The whole rationale for planting eucalypts was that they’re native species and so they and the soil they’re in would require little to no maintenance.

Eucalypts in the suburbs is ‘up there’ with the brainiac that agreed to plant eucalypts next to the new Light Rail route! The problem with Canberra is that one needs a Royal Commission to remove a tree in Canberra!

Capital Retro9:35 am 20 Jan 22

I was reviewing photos of my garden taken this time last year (it was some 20 degrees hotter than what it is now) and note that the flowering red eucalyptus was in full bloom then but today it is still in bud.

Also, and as I have stated before, I used more electricity for heating during the winter than ever before and so far this summer I have not used the cooling cycle on my air conditioning.

It’s getting cooler, not warmer.

“Every year, I look at the average temperatures in July and compare them to the much hotter temperatures in January.

So climate change isn’t happening.”

This is what you sound like.

If you can’t see the ridiculousness of attempting to draw conclusions around long term climate trends based on weather patterns and short term cyclical impacts (like La Nina), then you are beyond help.

Capital Retro1:59 pm 20 Jan 22

I was comparing January 2020 with January 2021 and you would be the last person I would seek help from if I needed any.

Yes, you were comparing the weather from 1 year to the next.

Which is absolutely meaningless information to the (ridiculous) point you are attempting to make around climate trends.

A Nonny Mouse5:40 pm 20 Jan 22

One data point from one person in one place vs. rigorous global science finding consistent trends across diverse measurements. Hmm. To which should I give greater credence?

Capital Retro5:41 pm 20 Jan 22

You are getting fanatical about climate change, chewy. I didn’t mention it once in my post and yet you say “climate change isn’t happening” (you are wrong, it happens continuously).

You are the one who needs help.

Capital Retro6:42 pm 20 Jan 22

Not one place but several all over the planet. For example, snow in the Sahara Desert: https://www.livescience.com/sahara-desert-ice-beautiful-photos.html and massive snow falls in Europe and North America.

It’s not a one way street.

Capital Retro,
There’s one of us who’s fanatical about climate change but it ain’t me champ.

You attempted to use one year of apparently cooler weather as evidence that “its getting cooler, not warmer”. It was a woeful attempt to link a completely unrelated topic to one of your regular evidence free positions.

Also funny that you claimed last year was “20 degrees hotter than now”, even though the average maximum temperature from January 2021 to 2022 is less than 1 degree different.

Was your head stuck in your fridge again?

Or maybe it’s something to do with one of those planes you think can carry millions of kilos of cargo dropping chemtrails on us.

The problem with the pro-gum tree lobby group is that they have very short memories. They do not remember suburbs bursting into flames as gum trees were set alight by an advancing ember storm. After burning for a week around the edges of the ACT, the fires entered the suburbs of Canberra on 18 January 2003. Over the next ten hours, four people died, over 490 were injured, and 470 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

Except that the ember attack critically affecting Duffy, where most houses were lost, was from the then adjacent pine forest, not eucalypt.

Short memory?

Capital Retro3:52 pm 19 Jan 22

And this is a natural occurrence, about every 50 years. Next Canberra bushfire disaster due about 2050.

Capital Retro5:17 pm 19 Jan 22

“The 2001 bushfire, burning under a Forest Fire Danger Index of 3 8, destroyed 500 ha of the plantation without any losses of urban assets.

The 2003 bushfire, burning under a Forest Fire Danger Index of 102 destroyed the remaining 1800 ha of plantation and 250 houses in the suburbs adjacent to the plantation. Forty-three percent of houses in the 125-152-m-wide plantation ember zone at the urban interface were destroyed, apparently as a result of heavy ember attack.”

250 houses in Duffy and other suburbs is not is not “most of 490 houses”.

Funny thought the issue was the fire ripped thought the pine Forrest rather than gums.

“The plantation” of 2001 is not “the plantation” of 2003. The former is now the Arboretum and some Molonglo suburbs. The second helped destroy Stromlo Village and Duffy, the suburb immediately adjacent at its western edge.

Also, 250 is > 50% of 490 and a mere 200 is the mode and greater than the mean of houses destroyed by suburb.

This leaves my key point unaddressed; that acton’s claim is wrong. So, what is your relevant point, apart from being wrong along the way?

Capital Retro8:11 pm 19 Jan 22

The bushfire started in NSW to the north-west. The pine forest was in its path, but you knew all that didn’t you.

The outer pine forests fueled the approaching firestorm but it was the gum trees within the suburbs that caught alight and spread the fires. This video shows numerous gum trees aflame along the streets.

Gum trees within the suburbs caught alight, along with the hundreds of houses? Really?
Excuse my sarcasm. Any highly flammable material does not help, but it was not the source you aver.

Capital Retro’s unreferenced quotations above appear to be from this document:

Examine the map on p47, showing where the entire western side of Duffy, the primary fire penetration point, was exposed to the Stromlo pine plantation which was the fuel for ember attack into the suburb. Anyone who had driven along Eucumbene Drive before 2003 could see the wall of pines and the threat potential.

Stick to gums falling on houses rather than self-immolating here.

I never said gum trees were the source of the fires, just that their existance in suburbs worsened the impact of the fires. Large gum trees, being highly flammable are inappropriate in suburbs.
I read the document you linked to.
Pg 51 “The situation was complicated by high fuel loads in many of the nature strips along Eucumbene Drive, which generated intense fires close to many of the residences that were destroyed. ”
“…CSIRO researchers (Ellis and Sullivan 2003) found that during the 2003 bushfire no residential properties were ignited or damaged by direct flame contact or radiant heat from flames in the pine plantation, bushland or grassland outside the suburb
perimeter roads and that firebrands directly ignited residential gardens, houses and other structures, urban parklands, access lanes and roadside vegetation. The CSIRO analysis indicates that the setback distances between the Stromlo plantation and the Duffy and Holder suburbs were sufficient to prevent direct flame contact with residences, but insufficient to prevent ember attack impacting significantly upon the gardens and residences, which ultimately caused the house losses. “

Dry, highly flamable gum trees in the suburbs erupted in flames from high wind borne embers coming from nearby pine forests. But also, far from the pine forests, suburbs like Holder, Chapman and Kambah were also impacted by spot fires. Have another look at the video and decide whether it is wise to have gum trees in suburbs.

do you know what would have prevented the fires getting in to the suburbs?

Having absolutely zero flammable material at all. So maybe we should get rid of every piece of greenery and just put down more concrete?

Or maybe we shouldn’t be planning what the appropriate types of trees within our suburbs based on a once in a 100yr event largely caused by events and fuel loads outside of the urban areas?

I really hope you don’t travel in a motor vehicle, surely the risk is too great.

The last sentence quoted from CSIRO suggests we agree on the ember storm from the pines. For the rest, I recall no earlier comment by me on the desirability of gum trees in suburbs. As noted by another writer, there are thosands of different gums. Trees and bushes burn. If you want a fright, have a look behind the surface of mature cypress foliage to see packed fine fuel loads in a pine oil reservoir. I think you are being speciesist 🙂

Capital Retro3:19 pm 20 Jan 22

Houses in Dixon Drive Holder ignited from inside due to high temperatures and air pressure. There were no pine trees near them

I live in Tuggeranong and on the Thursday evening before the fire hit Canberra two days later there were burnt leaves falling everywhere. On the actual fire day burning leaves started falling and grass on Mt Wanniassa caught alight. There was no influence of any pine plantations there.

Your ability to track a topic is quite indiscernible. ,

Chewy – I am unsure whether your comment derives from being habitually argumentative, or deliberately obtuse. To use your analogy of travel in a motor vehicle, one should drive and plant with care for consequences. Planting large, highly flammable gum trees in suburbs is the equivalent of speeding with reckless indifference to risks and other road users, compounded by ignorance of nature (gum trees and oil laden gum leaves burn with ferocity unmatched by deciduous trees) and a failure to learn from past mistakes (the 2003 inferno).

Your analogy fails because the risk profiles are not remotely comparable.

Thousands of people die on our roads every year. Deaths attributed to Gum trees catching on fire in urban areas?

A better comparison would be planting gum trees in suburbia is akin to driving a car 5km/hr over the speed limit.

Capital Retro8:40 am 19 Jan 22

In recent weeks there has been some very slow moving rain over Canberra suburbs. This has landed on seasonally large eucalypti’s leaves and because there is no wind to induce movement, the deposits of precipitation grow larger until the weight simply breaks the limbs. This happened to a spotted gum at my place last week. Snow has a similar effect as drivers around the Snowy Mountains will attest to.

I’m not an expert ecologist, by the way.

Many Eucalypts are not suitable near houses. However there are many different parts of suburbia. There could be many more Eucalypts in, for instance, median strips and open areas away from houses. They would substantially cool the area, provide habitat and greatly reduce the need for mowing. We, and the planet, need more trees, but not where they are a danger.

Not The Mama12:59 am 19 Jan 22

Please folks! The the risk of injury due to falling branches is incalculably small, no higher for eucalypts as for other species and far smaller than – say – getting killed in a car crash (yet here we are all driving and advocating more and faster roads). Risk to property can be managed by tree maintenance and pruning.

Weigh that against the shade wildlife habitat and beauty that the eucalypts provide, to what would otherwise be a hot dull landscape.

( Slow news day is it RiotACT? What old story are you going to dust off tomorrow to get the readers riled up? The high cost of petrol compared to other cities? Having to wear facemasks in public during a pandemic? Whether Summernats should continue to be held in Canberra?)

HiddenDragon6:54 pm 18 Jan 22

The short answer to the question posed by this article is “yes” – but it needs to be done in a much more balanced way than at present.

The tree protection scheme (for trees on private land) proposed by ACT Labor shortly after they got into power looked balanced. The idea was to have a temporary ban on the removal of large trees, identify truly significant trees and protect those, and then remove the ban. This was a response to a clunky scheme introduced by the former ACT Liberal government – essentially to placate some influential pearl-clutchers who were fraught about the removal of a particular tree in the Inner South.

ACT Labor were correct to criticise the Liberals’ tree protection scheme, but what they have done, and are still doing 20 years on, is far worse – not least because ACT Labor, doubtless egged on by the Greens, have broken the fundamental promise of a temporary ban.

What we now have, as a result of that broken promise, is confiscation of property rights without compensation, imposition of significant maintenance costs without recompense, imposition of serious risks without indemnification and, in practice, a selective form of civil conscription.

If anyone thinks the latter comment is an overstatement, just try complying with the bushfire safety warnings about keeping your roof gutters and valleys free of debris on hot, windy days when you have a large eucalypt tree, which constantly drops a lot of leaves and other debris, over-hanging your house. When you’re in that situation, and can’t touch the tree because it’s protected, being sanctimoniously told to protect your home by the same useless government that stops you from protecting your home, is infuriating beyond words.

When we had the gum trees in the ACT’s bit of out front yard, I got the distinct impression that the attitude was about minimising their costs and ignoring our risks,

Capital Retro4:44 pm 18 Jan 22

If you are a gum tree lover and a thrill seeker take a drive along Eggleston Crescent in Chifley (Melrose Drive end).

ChrisinTurner3:02 pm 18 Jan 22

It is Beech trees that are called ‘widowmakers’.

Trees only drop branches when they’re unwell. If the tree are taken care of properly it shouldn’t be a problem.

We have three close to the street.

I let them grow from ‘sports.’

The tallest gets inspected every few years. I only worry every now and then!

Mr Griffiths explanation may be the reason for trees falling over completely, although I saw quite a few that had fallen over in areas where the soil has not been compacted by the urban infrastructure. It also in no way explains the number of branches and large sections of trunk that simply snapped off.

Capital Retro7:06 am 18 Jan 22

Arboretums are the only place they should be.

Stephen Saunders6:05 am 18 Jan 22

Sure, don’t plant huge blue gums, as the government itself used to. But there are plenty of attractive small to medium gums you can plant. We’ve got E. olivaceae and E. viridis, they’ll never top 4-5m, not at all dangerous, give gentle shade.

Gum trees are one of the few trees that just shed limbs when it gets too dry. Without warnings they just come down. At least other foreign trees grow faster (taking more CO2 if that’s your thing) and give warnings about coming down.

However ACT with fight tooth and nail before allowing someone to knock them down, and will give only gum trees to the suburbs they dislike as someone has to have them.

The reality is 30m trees shouldn’t be in a suburban setting. There needs to be a risk management approach that says with the likelihood of severe storms increasing every year, the risk of death or severe property damage is too great.

I spoke to an arborist 4 weeks ago about a tree I as concerned about and told I had “no chance” of getting approval to remove it….it wiped out our house last week. I’m glad my family wasn’t home at the time.

Capital Retro8:23 am 18 Jan 22

……..”with the likelihood of severe storms increasing every year”……….

Say’s who?

Says the science, Barnaby

There will be two types of people who will comment on this article; people like me who strongly
oppose gum trees anywhere near our houses (and would vote for ANY party that made it easy to have them removed) and those who believe that property damage, electrical outages & blocked storm water drains are a small price to pay to protect the rights of the tree.

How about a 3rd group who actually read the article and believe a more nuanced approach is achievable to both retain trees and protect people and property?

The 3rd group you speak of; those who the read article and believe that you can protect trees, people & property are a sub-set of the 2nd group.

On many, and I mean many occassions, as a commercial driver, I’ve witnessed first hand tree limbs falling. No bad weather. Just trees dropping limbs. I have witnessed them hitting cars.

A limb from our neighbour’s yard broke our solar panel, another tree’s limb came down on our pergola, a smaller branch from yet another tree came through our daughter’s bedroom window.
Our garage flooding was caused by roots invading our stormwater drain, requiring our backyard to be excavated and new pipes laid and what did the ACT Tree people say about removing the tree? “I’m sorry, those trees are healthy and we can’t tell which tree caused the damage”. Request denied.

And finally, as a teenager, I personally witnessed a limb falling from a gumtree, killing one of my school teachers!

So, please don’t suggest that reading a need article will better inform me about the benefits of gum trees in suburbia. I have real life experiences.

“The 3rd group you speak of; those who the read article and believe that you can protect trees, people & property are a sub-set of the 2nd group.”

No, not remotely.

Well, unless you think the first group are also a subset of those who want to live in a purely concrete jungle.

I’ve lived for decades with these types of trees on my property. I have one at the front of my house now. Do they drop debris and occassional branches? Yes.

Do I quiver in fear that it will fall over and kill me? No.

Because with appropriate management the risk is miniscule compared to other risks that (even you) willingly accept every day.

So please don’t suggest that I don’t understand the risks. I have real life experiences.

Clearly, your real life experiences are different to mine.
Your experience appears to be a little bit of debris and the occasional branch falling. Mine are having my stormwater destroyed, experienced limbs (not branches) falling on my pergola and solar hot water panel. My experience also included a limb falling and KILLING my school teacher! I won’t go into detail, but trust me, it wasn’t nice.

While you may have exercised appropriate tree management, no amount of management would not have prevented under ground tree roots from invading your stormwater.
I should also point out that these trees that damaged our property were not our trees. They were our neighbour’s trees, planted near the boundary fence.

“It’s not that the trees are not suitable for the suburbs, but the soil is being compacted by the urban infrastructure.” So what he’s actually saying is that these trees are in fact unsuitable for the suburbs, since the soil in the suburbs is being compacted by urban infrastructure. Mulching won’t stop these trees from presenting a hazard. We had 2 down in our street from the storm earlier this month and 2 down on my property alone in the last 5 years, mulching won’t make this problem go away. Oh and 2 days without power, thanks to fallen gums….

No. At least not near houses and certainly (along with other evergreen trees) not to the north of houses where only deciduous trees should be planted to maximise solar gain in winter to help heat houses and optimise solar panels. We need to be smarter.

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