COLUMN: Safety top issue when assessing ice damage

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By Jeneen Wiche

The 2009 January ice storm knocked down limbs, electricity and phone service across Kentucky. The damage to trees was astounding, to say the least.
Last week’s icy “situation” brought back the memory of those dread-filled days as we slowly tackled the clean-up effort at the farm. This year’s ice is not nearly as bad as 2009, but it sure left a mess in its wake.
If you are among those with heavy damage, assess the situation with an eye toward safety.
There is no need to rush arborists; let them take care of the emergency jobs first. A tree with a couple of broken branches can wait, as can one that needs to be taken down. The dangerous stuff should be priority. And, as sad as I am about the apparent losses, I do realize that there is opportunity here: We can avoid repeating siting and selection mistakes and replace trees with improved varieties.
Of course, no tree is perfect every season of the year, under any circumstance. The majority of the trees here at the farm that suffered damage either had pre-existing conditions or a certain profile that made them more vulnerable to a heavy ice load. The eastern white pine, with its soft wood, long needles and shallow roots, is susceptible to breakage. One was actually uprooted. There is so much surface area for ice to accumulate on white pines that the volume of ice weight is a heavy burden.
Other evergreens around town and at the farm seem to be managing just fine – oriental, Serbian and Norway spruce; Nordmann and white fir; and the Bosnian pine all have shorter needles and therefore less surface for ice accumulation.
Of course it is not surprising that multi-branched trees are more susceptible to damage, but the lacebark elm takes the cake. We lost a big one in 2009; the remaining tree was hit pretty hard this time around. I love these trees but their open, multi-branched canopy makes them susceptible to failure under heavy ice.
Other trees that need work include old “farm” trees. The old hackberries have forked trunks with included bark that results in a weak point; they also have old wounds that housed some decay. These trees failed at these exact points under the ice load.
As usual, the black gum, sweet gum, bald cypress, gingko and most oak species held up well to the ice. Basically species with strong main leaders manage to hold up to the ice. This is not necessarily hardwood verses softwood, but multi-branched verses single main leader. Some trees are bent to the ground but have no signs of breakage. The river birch, for example, is extraordinary at this.
Do not try to “help” by propping it up while it is still covered in ice, or you will risk causing damage in the long run. Let everything thaw out naturally, then proceed accordingly.
Back to the issue of safety: Certified arborists can help determine if your trees are safe. Properly pruning trees can help to offset some problems and clean up others. Be mindful of any damage that could continue to be a hazard to a pedestrian, farm animal or structure, and make these clean-up chores your priority.
You are responsible for what is on your property, from the trunk to the parts that may have fallen on your side of the fence – even if the tree itself is on someone else’s property. In the case of tree damage during storms, where a tree or its branches land is where the responsibility lies.