Trees are wonderful, until a storm hits
Being woodworkers means we all have at least one love in common – wood.
Its grain, colour, workability and availability make it the best material for making furniture and home improvement projects with.
This past week I’ve realized there’s also a downside to wood, or more specifically, trees; most of us live near them and many of them eventually fall down. In parts of southern Ontario, a windstorm (known as a derecho) swept through the area wreaking havoc last Saturday, May 21. It was essentially a long wall of thunderstorms, rain and extremely high winds. In Peterborough, where I live, the entire city was without hydro for a couple of days because 120 km/h winds damaged or knocked down an estimated 15% of the city’s large trees. Thankfully, many of these trees just hit the ground, but some of them hit cars, houses, power lines and in a few cases, people. Reports say at least 10 people were killed in the storm.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying trees in urban areas should be done away with for good. They provide much needed shade, buffer wind and snow, clean our air, look great, give homes to wildlife and so much more. I guess, like anything else, there are pros and cons associated with trees, and we have to show them the respect they deserve.
Three minutes later
We were out on a ride when the storm hit. Even though we checked the weather forecast a couple of hours before the storm, there were no warnings at all. We headed out of town, and after about 20 minutes we realized something was going to hit us. Within two minutes the wind had picked up and it started to rain, so we ducked behind a small shed in a farmers field. Within the minute the wind was blowing so hard I warned my partner the if the shed does start to move to get out of the way quickly. Thankfully it stayed put.
Within three minutes of the storm starting, it ended, and there was only light rain. We were soaked, and also a bit worried about what damage it might have caused at home, so we turned around. Within a few hundred meters it was obvious the wind did some damage, as the trail was completely impassible due to fallen trees. After a few detours for downed trees and hydro lines we were back in Peterborough to learn how the City fared. Trees, most of them very large, were strewn everywhere and there was no hint of hydro anywhere. It was surprising to see what destruction could be done in just three minutes.
Three days later
I’m writing this three days after the storm and only about half of Peterborough has had their power restored. While the hydro crews are working on removing problematic trees and restoring hydro, citizens have come together to help each other remove trees from their property, repair their houses and cope with having no power.
My place was spared any damage, so I helped others clear trees that broke fences, fell through screened-in porches and littered their yards. When that was done, we started clearing walking and cycling trails so people could more easily get around. One section of the Trans Canada Trail to the southeast of Peterborough was hit particularly hard, but my partner and I spent a few hours clearing the trail so people could get by safely. I’m no expert with a chainsaw, but was able to use my small battery-powered Makita to clear away about 20 trees that ranged in diameter from 2″ to 15″. It felt great to be able to lend a hand in clearing away the fallen trees and bring back a sense of normalcy. I even got a 15″ long section of maple to carve some spoons from while clearing the trail. As a woodworker, it was impossible not to think about the future projects that could be made with some of this wood.
I’m sure some of the trees that fell will be used for firewood in the coming years, but the vast majority of trunks and branches will lay sitting on front lawns until it can be disposed of. Us woodworkers think of wood and how we can work it, but that wood obviously comes from trees. When the wood is cut into lumber it’s a wonderful thing, but when a piece of wood is jutting into your roof it’s a whole other story.
When you see what happens when a tree falls on a house you realize how large and heavy trees are. You also learn just how strong our houses are. Over the past few days I’ve seen trees that look to be close to 30″ in diameter a few feet above their base leaning at a fairly steep angle against houses. There is obviously damage done to the houses, but relatively speaking, surprisingly little. The costs associate with fixing those houses will be immense, but for the most part the houses have stood up to these large trees, and protected the inhabitants, quite well. Then it hit me; these houses are mostly built with wood. We use wood for so many things, and Canada has done so for centuries. If it wasn’t for trees the buildings in Canada would look very different today.
The bottom line
I hope most of the larger chunks of hardwood get burnt in a wood stove over the coming years. I also hope a lot of the chipped branches and leaves end up as mulch. But to be honest, in a situation this hectic I could understand if people disposed of it as quickly as possible, as they needed to get on with other things.
Appreciate trees for all their splendor. Structural integrity has to be near the top of the list. Furniture, structures and other small objects are made surprisingly strong and lasting when made of wood and engineered properly. Wood is an important source of fuel. Canada can be cold, and wood is a source of heat for warmth and cooking across the country. Shade is an often-overlooked benefit of trees. The list goes on.
The downsides we rarely see, though from time to time they become all too obvious. The wind the Peterborough area received the other day would have been much less problematic if there were no trees around to get blown over, though preemptively clearing all the trees away would certainly be a shortsighted approach. When trees bring trouble it’s important we all stick together and help each other out.
My mother, who also lives in Peterborough, loves nature, especially the wildlife in her area. The fact that trees give birds, squirrels and raccoons great places to live is more than enough for her to side with the trees. But while talking with her the other day she summed up many people’s thoughts regarding our urban canopy in one short sentence. “I love trees, but they just get too big.”
As a woodworker it's impossible to ignore the fact that the grain and colour of this freshly fallen maple is gorgeous. It was one of many large, old maples to come down in the heart of Peterborough.
I find it quite incredible that the roots of these old trees are actually as small in diameter as they are. The weight of a large tree, compounded by the regular force of winds, means the root system has to be very strong.
After the storm was over, and we headed for home, we were faced with this view. The Trans Canada Trail, to the southeast of Peterborough, was blocked.
A Local Park
Nicholls Oval, in the heart of Peterborough, was hit very hard. Dozens of large maples came down into picnic areas. Here you can see my partner with our black dog, but only if you look carefully.
A Big Mess
A day later we returned to the Trans Canada Trail to clear the trees that blocked our route home the day of the storm.
Mostly Medium-Sized Trees
Thankfully the trees that fell across the trail weren't too large for me to cut through. Because the blocked portion of the trail was far from any roads it was handy to have lightweight tools that we could carry in a backpack.
We picked away at the fallen trees with a small chainsaw and a folding 8" long Japanese saw from Silky. Our bikes made getting to the different blocked sections easy. And if you look closely you can see the chunk of maple I cut for some spoons.
Coast to Coast
After a few hours we were able to open the trail back up. It was hard, but satisfying, work.
I saw lots of very beautiful maple keys on the ground after the storm. These will, no doubt, grow into mature maples in the future.