Ask anyone in the Winnipeg tree industry what they remember of 2019 Thanksgiving weekend and the answers will come like it was yesterday.
“[That] Saturday morning, I remember the first thing I got in the car and [I] began to drive around. And I called my manager and said: ‘We’re in big trouble’, “Martha Barwinsky remembers immediately.
The Winnipeg city ranger had been watching the weather for days before that weekend.
With snow and ice clinging to the trees and a strong wind blowing, Barwinsky knew the unfolding storm would soon require every arborist she could get her hands on.
“Literally everyone was on deck,” said Barwinsky, remembering the many calls from the town’s forestry department.
Nine private contractors, all available urban forest workers and dozens of arborists from the cities of Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon and Toronto would eventually be thrown into the stricken urban forest.
Then Carla Antonation received the call that she already knew would come.
She and her husband Jesse own Trilogy Tree Services. Antonation was just returning from a client’s property when the enormity of the storm struck.
“I couldn’t believe how fast it was going and how many trees were starting to bend,” said Antonation.
“[I remember] thought, ‘Oh, that’s bad.’ “
While the city needed help with trees on public property, Trilogy’s phone exploded with calls from its own customers as well.
And the company’s crews on the street were inundated with requests from people fleeing their homes asking for help.
Lots of people were scared of the trees falling, Antonation said, but there was so much work that the company’s crews couldn’t help everyone.
“[It was] It’s definitely hard for our crews to say, ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t do this for you right now, ‘”she said.
As a result, more than 30,000 urban trees and countless others on private properties were damaged or overturned, leaving the City of Winnipeg a $ 10 million cleanup bill and 10 times the cost of repairing fallen power lines to Manitoba Hydro.
Treetops in danger
Both city and commercial arborists agree that the storm caused persistent stress on Winnipeg’s trees – but other factors are killing the city’s forest as well.
Dutch elm disease continues to be devastating. A drought sucks more life out of the trees. And the fluctuating weather cycles that climate change brings with it is another factor.
The city is now removing thousands of diseased trees and only replanting a fraction of them.
“Last year, in 2020, our replacement rate was 20 percent. So we’re only replacing 20 percent of the trees we remove,” said Barwinsky.
The city marked almost 8,000 trees for removal.
Another problem on private property is that the replacement trees are not always the right species.
“One of the problems we see is that a large tree falls over but is replaced by a small ornamental tree [one]”Said Antonation.
According to Antonation, when a large shade tree is felled, it should be replaced with another large tree.
That’s partly because these larger species help keep the heat lower in urban places already filled with concrete and buildings as temperatures rise due to climate change.
Reverse the trend
But efforts are being made to save Winnipeg’s canopy.
Early next year, the city will publish a draft of its urban forestry strategy and recommend a big move: a tree protection ordinance that could give the city some authority over all of Winnipeg’s trees, including trees on private properties.
“There are much more concerns about tree protection on private lots now due to development, construction, and a variety of activities – and we know that most of our urban forest is on private lots,” Barwinsky said.
The statutes could allow the city to require replacements for trees that are felled on private property.
And last year, the city launched the One Million Tree Challenge campaign, which got off to a flying start, to get business support and basic information about what species to plant and where to get them.
So far, 16,000 trees have been planted across the city as part of the campaign. That’s a number project coordinator Kamila Konieczny admits that dwarfs the million-tree target, but it urges residents to take a broader perspective.
“This is really a long-term initiative and we really hope to improve it every year and increase our forecasts and our numbers every year,” said Konieczny.
But the cumulative stress on Winnipeg’s urban forest is too great for the city to handle on its own.
“In everything that’s going on, from climate change to insects and disease to development, it’s really our turn,” Konieczny said.
“If we don’t do something soon, there may be a time when we don’t have a nice urban canopy.”