Tree expert: Problem of falling trees in Atlanta could worsen

Trees have been toppling faster than toys in a day care recently, blocking metro Atlanta roadways, damaging houses and killing a truck driver on I-20 late last month.

You can expect more downed trees in coming months said Bob Delbridge, an Atlanta arborist and owner of 404-CUT-TREE, a tree removal and care firm. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Delbridge about the accidents and when to worry about your own trees. His responses have been edited for space.

Q: Why are so many trees falling?

A: What we have right now is almost a perfect storm of circumstances that lead to trees falling, and unfortunately the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.

The problem goes back to the drought. For a period of several years, the soil the trees are planted in has gotten progressively drier and drier and it has damaged the tree roots. It causes stress, and the trees don’t do as good a job getting nutrients and water (killing many of the micro roots that help hold the tree in place). Then you have this bad foundation and squishy soil from recent heavy rain, so there is even less holding the tree up. Add to that the wind and you have the perfect storm. You have this massive column of weight and the least amount of wind can topple it over.

It takes years for trees to regenerate these fine root hairs … and when the leaves pop out this spring any little bit of wind is going to be even worse.

Q: What are warning signs that homeowners can look for to call an arborist or tree removal company?

A: We’ve found about two-thirds of trees do have visible defects that can be spotted, but it really requires a knowledgeable eye to determine the extent of the damage. (Signs) might be in the form of cankers like ulcers on the trunks. Look for base damage, decay, mushrooms and you can occasionally get some of the black fungus showing up (on visible roots) that is indicative of root rot.

First, look at trees that could fall on something that is valuable to you. A tree in the woods is not a high priority. Trees that could reach your house or your car are different. One thing to look for is any kind of visible defect. You don’t have to be educated to look at the trunk of a tree and know it just doesn’t look right. Mushrooms growing are always a sign of wood decay. If you have mushrooms at the base of a tree or on a tree, that is a huge red flag. Look at the bark. If it looks like something is missing from the bark, it could be indicative of a canker. If a tree just doesn’t look right, chances are there is a defect.

Q: Is it is too late for a homeowner to save a tree at that stage, or are there things they can do?

A: Yes, but a key is to determine the extent of the trouble. A lot of times many old trees have pockets of decay. It’s not necessarily a show stopper. It is just a red flag to look further… and risk is subjective. For one person any amount of risk is scary and is keeping you awake at night. For another, because a tree is 200 years old, they are willing to accept a little more risk. (An arborist can help determine if a tree needs to stay or go.)

If you have root rot or if you have a situation where drought has damaged the roots, that is an example of where a tree has to come out.