2013 Ice Storm damage Toronto 2014

Ice Storm 2013: A year later, Toronto trees still at risk, experts warn

Study completed on the extent of the damage to the city's urban canopy

Patrick Rail/Toronto Observer
Pruning trees on Toronto’s Floyd Avenue one year after the 2013 ice storm. (Patrick Rail)

It was not hard to find Sandy Smith’s home in the Harbord Village in October, because to the casual passer-by, it looked like her front lawn has been reclaimed by nature, overgrown with shrubs, grass and brush. Smith is a professor of forestry at the University of Toronto. The centrepiece of Smith’s front yard is a sprawling cherry tree, one that weathered the Dec. 22, 2013 ice storm particularly well, in part, because of regular pruning.

Many Torontonians were not so lucky, however.

Following the storm, 20 per cent of the city’s tree canopy was damaged, city staff estimated. Now with the first anniversary of the ice storm just passed, Smith and other experts remain concerned that a lack of resources has left the city ill-prepared for another severe weather event.

“They’re so busy putting out fires… with a budget that’s limited,” Smith said.

Following the ice storm, the city contracted Davey Tree, a private company, to do an inventory of the 600,000 street trees, the results of which were to be released by the end of December, according to Smith.

On the Forestry webpage of Toronto.ca, officials outlined what they’ve done since the ice storm:

Urban Forestry’s response to the ice storm unfolded in three phases:

– initial response in co-operation with Toronto Hydro to remove trees and tree limbs that were affecting power lines, blocking roads, or posed a safety concern;

– Hazard Abatement, which included tree inspections and prioritized work to make trees safe and eliminate hazards, and

– Hidden Hazard Cleanup which was completed in November and included a detailed assessment of the structural integrity of street trees and select trees in parklands to identity hidden tree hazards. Structurally compromised trees were addressed and expedited tree maintenance was conducted. Non-emergency tree work is scheduled to be completed through Urban Forestry’s area maintenance program.

Data has been collected and is currently being analyzed to confirm the impact of the storm and for the purpose of planning long term recovery of the urban forest.” –Toronto.ca

“Hidden Hazard Cleanup …. was completed in November. …Structurally compromised trees were addressed and expedited tree maintenance was conducted. Non-emergency tree work is scheduled to be completed through Urban Forestry’s area maintenance program.”

In an email sent Dec.30, city forestry official, Brian Mercer said, “the City has completed an assessment of the… entire street tree population and select trees in parks to determine the structural integrity of the trees and to identify hidden hazards.”

“Every Tree Counts,” a study released in 2013 by the city’s parks, forestry and recreation department estimated that Toronto had a canopy that encompasses 28 per cent of the city, or roughly 10 million trees.

According to Todd Irvine, a private arborist who was very involved with the ice storm clean up, one of the problems that Toronto faces with the urban canopy is that the city has a policy that is “reactive, rather than proactive.” This is evident in the pruning of street trees in the city, which should happen regularly from a young age, according to Irvine.

“You can’t just leave a newborn baby alone, you can’t just leave a freshly planted tree alone… it needs to be taken care of,” Irvine said.

Pruning a tree while it is young, called “directional pruning,” forces the tree to grow in the direction desired. Waiting may save money, but results in bigger branches needing removal, creating structural defects in the tree. This is particularly important to trees in vulnerable locations, like near power lines.

Toronto Hydro is responsible for maintaining trees around power lines, and Smith thinks that one of the reasons so many lines were damaged in the ice storm was because of poor pruning by Toronto Hydro crews.

“Ultimately my tax dollars go up because you have to come back and deal with the problem that hydro created,” Smith said.

The ice storm also has created several problems for a forestry department that was already struggling to control Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive species causing large-scale damage to the urban forest.

Mercer said that since the ice storm the forestry department has been working with Toronto Hydro crews about safe pruning and other issues including how to work together during emergencies.

According to Mercer the city wants to “find more efficient ways that we can work together to accomplish more while furthering our individual interests.”

Mercer wrote, “Those interests being: protecting overhead plant and ensuring reliable delivery of service to customers for Hydro, and maintaining the City’s street tree population to ensure public safety and to promote the health and sustainability of Toronto’s urban forest.”

LEAF is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness about the urban forest. After the ice storm, their agency suggested ways people could repurpose the wood in damaged trees.

“To have [the ice storm] added on as an additional stress, not only to the urban forest but also to the urban forestry budget… they {the city] don’t have capacity or the resources to deal with those things,” said Michelle Bourdeau, the program director of LEAF.

That additional stress placed on the city was evident; although city crews were able to quickly remove fallen trees, the documentation of the work was poor, Mercer acknowledged.

This was evident to experts in the months following the ice storm, as the numbers released about damaged trees made little sense.

“Some numbers started coming out, and you go ‘Who came up with these?’ These are just guesses,” Smith said, referring to the numbers of trees the city originally said had been damaged.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail, a pledge was made to increase the urban canopy from 28 per cent, to 40 per cent by 2057, meaning that 570,000 trees need to be planted, per year.

To achieve goals set by the city, the forestry department is continuing to work at increasing public awareness, among other strategies, according to Mercer.

One city that Toronto can look to as an example is New York, which completely changed its urban forest policies starting in 2007, despite having several major hurricanes at the same time, culminating with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Three years after Sandy, the New York Forestry Department estimates that they still have 9,500 trees left to remove by next year.

The biggest success in New York has been moving away from “request-based planting” like Toronto, to a large-scale community block planting initiatives. The deputy chief of Forestry for New York City, Jeremy Barrick, who was in Toronto in late November to speak about his city’s efforts, said that this was because in most cases the areas that most need trees are not the ones calling to request trees be planted.

“Love or hate large tree-planting campaigns, one of the things they do is raise awareness of trees,” Barrick told an audience at the University of Toronto.

Toronto’s public awareness campaign includes public information sessions and volunteer opportunities, but the city is aware of New York’s strategy, Mercer said.

New York has also started to work directly with nurseries, hiring them to grow specific trees, allowing them to tailor specific planting campaigns to specific neighbourhoods.

When looking at tree diversity on a macro level, Toronto boasts a highly diverse canopy with 116 different species.

Bourdeau says that this diversity is misleading because many communities have been heavily planted with only a few species.

“By planting diverse species… you can take comfort in knowing that [extreme events] are only going to hit a few species to the extreme,” Bourdeau said.

One of the other ways that New York has used additional funding is to develop a program to give computer tablets to work crews. This allows them to track work requests and work orders in real time, streamlining the process and allowing the city to better coordinate crews.

Mercer referred to the work order program as “brilliant,” adding that although Toronto has the ability and technology to put this program in place, it remains a work in process.

The city forestry and parks department has an operating budget of $412 million. Just $1.565 million of the budget has been set aside for additional ice storm related tree canopy maintenance.

The changes that Toronto is considering would be welcome to Smith, who considers New York a success story when it comes to urban forestry.

“Some of it comes down to resources, but more importantly it comes down to vision,” Smith said.