Tree damage from the December 2013 ice storm Part 2: Assessing damage

Proper care is needed to ensure long-term health of damaged trees.

Extreme cold weather associated with a series of Arctic blasts has dominated our weather news since the first of the year. For most homeowners in mid-Michigan, however, the most significant and lasting impacts of this winter will be due to the Dec. 21-22, 2013, ice storm that coated trees with up to an inch of ice across a wide area between Lansing, Mich., and Flint, Mich. As we’ve noted in related articles, this storm damaged hundreds of thousands of trees. Most of the ice damage to trees was high crown breakage, though some trees split or lost major limbs as well.

High crown damage
High crown damage was the most common impact of the
ice storm. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU

So far, our continuing cold and snowy conditions have precluded many homeowners from dealing with trees damaged by the ice storm. Once our weather warms up, homeowners will begin to venture outside and assess the damage from the storm. Proper pruning and care of damaged trees is important for safety and for the long-term health of the trees. If damaged trees are not properly pruned, several problems may ensue. Trees may experience severe dieback, resulting in dead limbs that may fall later.

Some trees may also produce prolific sprouts or “suckers” along limbs that have been damaged. These newly-formed limbs are often weak and poorly attached to the tree and may be prone to failure during future storms. Broken limbs that are hung up in trees are a hazard since they may fall later. Lastly, proper pruning and tree care can help to reduce the likelihood that broken limbs will become infected with disease pathogens than can further damage or kill the tree.

Here are some common questions that are likely to arise as homeowners inspect their trees.

Can this tree be saved?

Deciding whether or not a tree is too severely damaged to be saved is often a difficult question. Key considerations include the extent of the damage, tree age, tree condition and proximity of targets if the tree should go downhill and subsequently fail. The National Arbor Day Foundation has a very useful illustrated guide for assessing trees after a storm.

Consider the target Large fallen limb
(Left) When assessing tree damage, consider the “target” – what would the limb or tree hit if it fell.
(Right) Loss of a major limbs may make it difficult to save a tree. Photo credits: Bert Cregg, MSU

Can I prune or repair this myself?

Everyone has a different comfort level for do-it-yourself projects based on their experience and equipment. My personal rule of thumb is if I can’t reach a limb from a ladder or with a pole pruner, I’m leaving it for a professional. Below are some additional factors to consider before tackling the job yourself.

  • High hanging limbs or tops are especially dangerous. Old timers called these “widow-makers” for a reason. A limb may have been caught up in a tree for weeks or months, but it doesn’t mean it can’t come down when you least expect it.
  • Do not attempt to remove limbs near utility lines.
  • If the tree or limb falls, what is it likely to hit? In a humorous insurance commercial, a homeowner drops a large tree limb on his neighbor’s car. I’m pretty sure this situation is a lot less funny in real life.
  • Use proper personal protective equipment (PPE). A professional arborist would never do any overhead tree work without a hardhat and eye protection; why would you?
  • There is no shame in erring on the side of caution. Lots of homeowners have ended up regretting taking on a tree job that went bad; few people regret calling a professional.

Hanging limb Limbs in utility lines
(Left) Hanging limbs are extremely dangerous and should to be removed by a professional arborist.
(Right) Leave it to the pros. Never attempt to prune or remove limbs around utility lines.
Photo credits: Bert Cregg, MSU

How do I find a quality tree service company?

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is the professional association for arborists and hosts a searchable Find a Tree Care Service feature on its website. In order to be ISA certified, arborists must pass exams and receive continued training to maintain their certification,

In addition to ISA certification, make sure that any tree service company you use is insured. I have spoken with homeowners in the Lansing, Mich., area that have been approached by individuals offering to do tree work from as far away as Louisiana. In some cases, these doorknockers are honest folks trying to make a buck, but in other cases they may be unscrupulous individuals exploiting a homeowner’s misfortune. In either event, it’s a liability nightmare waiting to happen if the person damages your property or your neighbor’s and then disappears.

It’s no secret that quality tree care work is not cheap. Remember, like all things in life, you get what you pay for. Reputable arborists have to pay to train and retain quality employees, maintain their equipment and pay for insurance.

What questions should I ask my arborist?

Most arborists have standard contracts that cover most common situations, but asking questions and getting things in writing can help eliminate miscommunications. Before signing a contract, be sure to find out if the quoted price includes debris removal or stump grinding, if desired, and when work will be completed. Ask for proof of liability insurance and ISA certification if the tree service doesn’t volunteer it.

See the related Michigan State University Extension articles for more information

Dr. Cregg's work is funded in part by MSU's AgBioResearch.

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