Years required for canopy to regrow

By Matthew Van Dongen, The Hamilton Spectator (January 11, 2014)

A mountain-sized monument to storm victims is growing on Upper Ottawa Street.

The pile towers twice the height of the front-end loader in charge of building it and covers the area of a small sports field — for now.

If your favourite street tree lost life or limb to the icy pre-Christmas freeze, its wood-chipped remains could swell the mulch morgue.

"There's always a pile there, but the size depends on the kind of year we have," said forestry manager Mike McNamara. "Last year was kind of exceptional."

The grim 2013 body count for city-owned trees in parks and lining streets — so far — is between 7,000 and 9,000, thanks in large part to a deadly July windstorm.

That estimate will likely grow: it could take months to learn which trees damaged in the latest ice storm are living on borrowed time, or pose an eventual public hazard.

By comparison, the city removes 1,200 dead trees in an average year — plus 2,300 ash trees for invasive beetle control — and plants about 6,000.

That's worrisome math for a city that wants to grow its urban canopy from 19 per cent to 35 per cent by 2030.

McNamara said the July wind and rain storm (with gusts more than 100 km/h) hit mature street trees in the lower city "like sails in a gale," causing some to uproot and crash down in dramatic fashion. Ice storm damage hit the Mountain and rural Hamilton hardest and was more insidious, ripping down thousands of limbs but leaving most trees standing.

The city will replant storm-axed street and park trees that it owns, said McNamara, but growing patches for holes in the full urban canopy will easily take two decades.

It's impossible to guess how much deadwood disguised as trees still stands in public forests or on private property after storm-wracked 2013.

But with forestry crews still dealing with hazard calls, city garbage collectors have been seconded to tackle the piles of branches lining residential streets in Flamborough, Glanbrook, Ancaster and Stoney Creek.

"My whole ward looks like a checkerboard — you have one section devastated, littered with trunks and branches, and then one concession down things are OK," said West Flamborough Councillor Rob Pasuta, who lost "dozens and dozens" of big cedars, spruce and poplars from his 100-acre farm.

While urban deadfall will end up in city-owned mulch mountains or compost piles at the Glanbrook landfill, Pasuta said rural residents have to find other options. "I've already got my burn permit," he said. Others are cutting and splitting the wood for their fireplaces.

Jan Winkelmolen double-staked many of the saplings on his Lynden tree farm after watching last July's wind storm tear apart the Hamilton area. That helped preserve his livelihood during the ice storm, but couldn't protect the dozens of mature maples and white pines lining his property.

"It was quite the bombardment last year, one thing after another," he said. "Maybe I'll get some business out of it in the end (replacing trees) … or maybe the city will blow the budget just cleaning up."

Tightly packed forests and woodlots are more likely to survive the ice storm "haircut," said Bruce Mackenzie, a director with the Hamilton Conservation Authority, which lost thousands of trees across its citywide parks.

"It's the big, beautiful trees out in the open, the ones with canopies like an umbrella, those saw the worst damage," said Mackenzie, who singled out old silver maples as the most common victim. "Those ones are hard to replace."

Valens Lake visitors will likely miss at least one 30-metre shady sentinel that has been guarding beachgoers and loungers near the water's edge for 40 years.

"It kind of looks like a bomb went off overhead," said superintendent Gordon Costie of the sprawling maple, which lost most of its central limbs — each the size of a small tree — to heavy ice buildup.

"Unfortunately, we had a lot of silver maples planted around the same time 40 years ago. You hate to see trees of that age and size die off."

Fallen conifers and snapped poplars also zapped electrical service to various conservation area parks — a fate familiar to about 30,000 city residents who lost power in a ring around the lower city and thousands in Flamborough and rural areas.

Mackenzie said the extent of tree destruction last year prompted the authority to discuss different pruning plans, particularly for hydro corridors. "It's making us rethink in serious ways how we prepare for these weather events."

The city has long planned to improve its pruning and maintenance cycle, but McNamara said forestry staffers spent most of last year "playing storm catch-up."


Trees by the numbers

9,000 Estimate of city trees lost last year
1,200 Dead city trees removed on average
2,300 Ash trees to be cut each year to fight EAB
6,000 Annual planting goal