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Notes from an Arborist: How to Stay Safe When the Wind Blows

Scott Turner

July 18, 2016 10:35am

I’ve known Andy Thompson since his RTD days, and when he launched Richmond Outside I eagerly offered myself to him as a “contributing arborist.” In the several subsequent years, I have, in fact, contributed various articles with trees as the focus, but often I have found myself equally inspired by our beautiful river, its influence on my family, and the special people and places that make our city the 21st century natural wonderland that it is. But recently the wind blew fiercely again, and I suppose more than ever it’s time for me to share the perspective of a Richmond arborist.

Living at peace with our trees is not always easy. Credit: Ginnie Busick

Living at peace with our trees is not always easy. Credit: Ginnie Busick

It happens every so often that our lush and mature urban forest is asked to stand up against 60-100 mph winds. It’s an unfair ask, really, and when the wind blows with that ferocity, many of our trees break and fall. If you live in Northside Richmond, on June 16th mother nature plowed through your neighborhoods preaching a terrible gospel in torrents of rain and bellowing wind. You hunkered down in your houses, most of you without power, through a long nervous night of unfamiliar, harrowing sounds. Howling winds, creaking trees, and worst of all, the cracking and crashing of slates and timbers. Nature brought you a rare message of primordial power that night, and you awoke Friday morning to find many of your trees in critical genuflection; either prostrate, bowing down on houses, or leaning into the stronger arms of adjacent trees.

With the sawdust settled from the severe storm that gouged its way down I-64 and through northside Richmond on June 16th, and as the victims begin to get their lives back to normal, many Richmonders begin looking at the trees around their houses with an altered perspective. They have suddenly forgotten how much they enjoyed the shade of green canopies, the abundant wildlife habitat, the serene colors of fall, the intricate wooden skeletons silhouetted against a winter sky, and the special relationship between their children and their trees. Many of my Richmond friends and neighbors remember only that just recently their lives and properties were threatened. They feel vulnerable, and want to do something about it.

It is true, a simple fact really, that if we decide to live in a forest, or with trees, then every time the wind blows above 50 miles per hour our properties are at risk. As I once again begin to counsel those who think their only recourse is to remove their trees, I don’t deny this truth. But what I do find myself doing is reminding them how rare these extreme wind events are, and I encourage them to weigh carefully what they would be sacrificing if they remove their trees for a stronger sense of security. I make sure they understand the full implications of the trade-off.

“But is there any way to live safely amongst trees?” my clients ask.

Credit: Richmond.com

This was a common sight in Richmond last month. Credit: Richmond.com

Unfortunately, when Nature shows us her full blast as she did in the middle of June, any tree can become a victim. And when we are beneath them when they fall we can be victims as well. So much for the bad news, and the fixed variable in the equation of safety and living amongst trees.

Here’s the good news: Thousands of windless or mildly breezy days usually pass between devastating wind events. For me and my children, that’s thousands of days during which we have shaded ourselves beneath the silver maple tree, flied high on our tree swing, played hide-and-seek behind our stout loblolly pine trees, climbed the wild cherry tree, played in our tree house, and relaxed in our hammock. Thousands of days during which our lives have been enhanced by these tall friends.

What then, you might ask, does the Turner family do when the wind blows hard enough to dangerously topple these tall friends?

It’s simple, really. We leave home. We go to an aunt’s house where there is no physical threat from falling trees. And when Mother Nature’s tantrum is over, we drive home to see if any or our friends have fallen, or if we have any property to repair or replace.

And so if you, like us, really enjoy your trees but want to feel more in control of your destiny when Nature is delivering one of her violent messages, here are the things you can do:

No. 1  Have your trees inspected at least annually, and remove hazardous trees. In many cases the trees that have fallen in wind events had defects or weaknesses that could have been detected by an observant arborist.

No. 2  Maintain your trees. Healthy trees have a more firm, healthy grip on the earth.

No. 3  Thin trees that you or your arborist are especially worried about. We don’t top trees as arborists (with enough reasons it would require another post to present them), but a good 25 percent thinning can reduce the weight loading and windsail effect dramatically.

No. 4  Find out from your arborist which of the trees around your house could cause the most damage if they fall, and determine where in your house you would be safe from the impact.

No. 5 If, like the Turners, you have no place in your house that would guarantee you personal protection from certain falling trees, leave! Usually the high wind part of a storm is relatively brief. You could even go to a mall or restaurant if you have no friends with safer houses, or a hotel if the storm is expected to have a long or overnight duration.

Will these steps make you safe around trees during a hurricane, or any wind event with sustained winds over 50 mph?

Well, No. 5 will always make you physically secure, and any combination of the other 4 will increase the chance that your trees and property will make it through the storm as well. It’s the best we can do if we want to continue living in the forest, other than move or take them all down.

Oh yeah, there is that one more option,

No. 6  – Move to a neighborhood of Bradford Pear and Leyland Cypresses Trees. A truly viable option for someone who will not be made comfortable or feel secure amongst our mature native trees, and a better option than altering the character of a wooded neighborhood by introducing a clearcut lot.

The storm is over for now, Richmond, and it’s time to enjoy our time with our trees again. I can’t guarantee there will be thousands of peaceful days before the next big blow, but history records that we should not expect to be terrorized this way too frequently. Be smart about your physical security when the wind blows, and be proactive about tree care on your property. Most importantly, enjoy the positive role trees play in your daily life.


About Scott Turner

Scott Turner enjoys the simple life he lives with his wife, Amy, and two young daughters in a lush, urban forest near the banks of the James River in Richmond, Va. After travelling the world for five years as an enlisted member of the United States Navy, Scott earned a Master's Degree in Physics from VCU before turning to a career as a certified arborist. He has been the owner of Truetimber Tree Service since 1998 and added an outdoor outfitting business called Riverside Outfitters in 2005 to share his love of trees. The company emphasizes recreational tree climbing, river play, and a return to good, old-fashioned fun.


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