Hazard Tree Assessments

How to tell if the tree looming over your house and in your thoughts is a hazard tree…

It’s big and it’s heavy, and it’s got the potential to put a major dent in your home and your finances…but is it truly a hazard tree? When should you worry? And when should you simply be grateful for the extra shade?

Trees lay across a house roof after a wind storm
Trees lay across a roof after a windstorm

We at Sand Creek Tree Service are experienced in assessing hazard trees. That said, not all problem trees are readily detected. Sometimes the structural defects are hidden inside the tree or below the soil. Sometimes, a “better safe than sorry” approach is best. We’ll always discuss options with you, letting you make the final call when it comes to potential risks that are hard to quantify.

However, many hazard trees present signs of their structural weaknesses. Ultimately, a hazard tree is one in which the weight of a tree – or a part of the tree – exceeds the tree’s structural integrity (in a branch, trunk or roots). When assessing your tree for risks, we evaluate the likelihood of the tree failing, the environment that contributes to failure, and the target (the part of your property that would sustain damage).

There are seven general problems that point to your tree being a hazard tree: decayed wood, cracks, root problems, weak branch unions, cankers, poor tree structure, and dead portions of the tree. Decayed or rotting wood is often indicated by shelf mushrooms – a parasitic fungus – growing on the trunk. Cracks are often obvious and can be the result of lightning, frost, or other factors. Root problems might be evidenced by a bulging in the ground to one side of the tree, indicating that anchor roots are slowly losing their capacity to hold the tree in place. Weak branch unions can appear as a kind of seam in the bark, a sign of included bark. This means the branch is not fully connected to the rest of the tree; as the limb grows over the years and increases in weight, that union my fail. Cankers will look like a bulge or deformation in the trunk of your tree, meaning that the bark and cambium layer are dead and nutrients aren’t flowing through the tree as they should. Poor tree structure simply implies that your tree has grown in a direction or manner that makes breakage more likely. Perhaps the tree has a heavy lean, or maybe a horizontal branch has acquired too much weight. Finally, a hazard tree is most obvious when it is dying (dead top or branches) or completely dead.

Besides looking at these seven factors, we also assess the direction of prevailing winds in your area and which direction your hazard tree might fall. Another important factor to consider is the target. What will the tree damage when it falls? If you have a hazard tree without the potential to damage your property or injure anybody, we sometimes suggest letting nature takes its course. Trees that humans deem hazardous can make for important animal habitat. Think of all our local eagles and osprey that nest in snags.

If a potential hazard tree is regularly invading your thoughts, don’t hesitate to give us a call. It’s better to bring down a tree in a controlled manner – especially around people and structures – than to let your roof bear the brunt. And who knows, maybe your tree is perfectly healthy and willing to provide you and your family shade and birdsong for another fifty years. But a little peace of mind provided by a professional is always worth the effort.

For more information, check out this excellent hazard tree graphic.

And the city of La Grande, Oregon, has a good hazard tree checklist.

Weak Branch Unions: A Very Visible Hazard

Weak branch unions are easy to spot before they become a problem…

Weak branch unions are one of the most common hazards we see on clients’ properties. This hazard is easily identifiable and, thus, easily avoided. But what are the signs that tell us a weak branch union likely exists?

The most frequent weak branch union we see is called a co-dominant stem. This is where two stems of roughly the same size arise from the same point on the tree. (This is also known as a “schoolmarm” in forestry circles…but it’s up to you to learn the backstory on that.) The junctions between co-dominant stems are often considered the weakest portion of a healthy tree. They are widespread in forested areas; you’ll often see them on area trees, especially ponderosas. It will look like the tree has two or more tops. This creates a weak branch union because the two stems, or leaders, are growing so closely together that the bark on each leader interferes with the formation of a proper, strong union. This is called included bark, and it doesn’t have the structural strength of a normal branch crotch. Furthermore, included bark can act as a wedge, forcing the weak branch union to split apart.

weak branch unions
Removal of a ponderosa with co-dominant stems earlier this spring. Weak branch unions are especially troubling near structures.

During the windstorms of recent years, we’ve seen countless trees lose one of their co-dominant stems. Wind will point out any weak branch unions you have, if you’d rather not pay a professional to investigate. The problem doesn’t stop with the toppling top of the tree—and subsequent property damage—though. Once one of the co-dominant leaders is gone, a wound remains and leaves the tree structurally weaker and vulnerable to infection. The best approach is to be proactive about trees with co-dominant leaders. Either remove one of the leaders in a controlled environment, or cable the two stems together so they support one another and don’t sway past the trigger point in the wind. We are well versed in both approaches and can talk you through options.

Another example of a weak branch union is when epicormic branches (also known as watersprouts or suckers) are allowed to grow into sizable limbs. Epicormic branches grow quickly—often in response to poor pruning practices, injury or some kind of environmental stress—and they always display weak branch unions. It’s best to tend to suckers when they are newly formed, before they pose any real hazard to structures and people.

Finally, any branch that comes off the trunk at a very acute angle or doesn’t display a ridge of raised bark at the crotch is of potential concern. If you have trees on your property that exhibit any of the signs of a weak branch union, call us for a free consultation and estimate. Considering the widespread impacts of recent windstorms—and the fact that weak branch unions are especially susceptible to failure in wind—a call to us will at least provide peace of mind.