Rattled by derecho, homeowners face tree removal dilemma

Many homeowners are juggling two competing fears after thousands of trees were destroyed in the May derecho — of climate change being made worse by a lack of trees, and of the trees around them being made more dangerous by one of the effects of climate change: increasingly severe weather.

Standard home insurance covers damage caused by falling trees and branches, but trees need regular inspections

A massive pine overshadows a house.
The owners of this home in Carlington are worried this massive conifer poses a serious risk of falling in severe weather, and say they don't feel they have a lot of options to deal with it. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

If you lived through the powerful derecho storm that knocked many thousands of trees down across Ottawa in May, chances are you or someone you know has confessed to feeling anxiety with every new thunderstorm warning.

Cathy Malcolm Edwards knows the sensation well.

She thinks the massive conifer in her Carlington front yard poses a serious risk of falling in bad weather and should be removed, but at the same time it's a tree she respects for its contribution to the environment.

She's among many homeowners caught between a rock and a hard place; who, after thousands upon thousands of trees were destroyed in the derecho, find themselves juggling two competing fears — of climate change being made worse by a lack of trees, and of the trees around them being made more dangerous by an effect of climate change: increasingly severe weather.

WATCH | What some of the derecho damage looked like from above

What some of the derecho damage looked like from above

12 months ago
Duration 0:30
This drone video shows extensive damage in Ottawa’s Blossom Park neighbourhood after a severe thunderstorm swept through on May 21. (Video by David Johnson)

"It's a very difficult situation to be in," Malcolm Edwards said in an interview under the big pine in early July, when she noticed for the first time that it's starting to lean, slightly but perceptibly, toward the house.

City earlier said tree was healthy, shouldn't be removed

Its trunk sits on the dividing line between the city-owned portion of lawn near the road and the property she shares with her partner, Jeffrey Edwards.

About three years ago, a city arborist said the tree couldn't be taken down because it was healthy. But the employee also told them that if it does fall, it would be up to the couple to clean up and handle the costs.

They said they feel stuck, and increasingly concerned after the big storm in May.

An unsmiling man and woman.
Cathy Malcolm Edwards, left, and her partner, Jeffrey Edwards. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

"These problems get thrown onto the homeowner every time," said Devin Runge, a certified arborist and owner of D&D Tree Service, who pulled downed trees off homes, garages and more non-stop for weeks after the May 21 storm passed through Ontario and Quebec, killing at least 10 people.

As an arborist, Runge knows the benefits of trees better than most. But after a roof nearly collapsed on him as his crew removed a mangled tree, and after seeing "the worst of the worst" in damage for months, he's clearly unsettled.

In the same interview, he said people should relax about their trees and then sounds the alarm.

"I would say don't be scared. There's always a storm, but a lot of these trees are actually OK. We had a bad chain of events … leading up to the storm with all the rain and the root systems were able to kind of slip out of the ground. The trees are beautiful. Don't think about it. Make sure you're insured and keep enjoying the trees," he said.

And then, later on: "But no tree is going to survive 180 kilometre[-per-hour] winds. It doesn't matter how healthy the tree is. I don't want to scare people, but that's the reality that we're in at the same time, right?"

A large coniferous tree leaning slightly toward a house.
The couple recently noticed for the first time that the pine is now leaning toward their house. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

City wants to protect, expand tree cover

The city is trying to protect and expand its tree canopy to cover 40 per cent of its lands (up from 31 per cent in 2017).

To help achieve that, the recently strengthened tree bylaw requires homeowners to get special permits to remove trees 30 centimetres in diameter at breast height or larger inside the Greenbelt (the inner urban area), and 50 centimetres in diameter outside the Greenbelt.

WATCH | How can the city create a resilient canopy?

After the derecho, a new challenge — how to make ‘more resilient’ forest canopies

12 months ago
Duration 1:28
Jason Pollard, a section manager with the City of Ottawa's forestry department, says the severe thunderstorm in late May sparked concerns about how to protect the tree canopy from future weather events.

Runge said he doesn't think it strikes the right balance between property protection and environmental protection, but he doesn't know what would.

"Telling someone they need a permit [to remove] a big tree … and if it comes down it's going to total the entire house, I don't know if that's the right thing to do, either. Just from the devastation that I've seen and … how it just turns people's lives upside down … it's insane," he said.

"And these windstorms seem to keep happening. It's not going to stop. So what is the solution?"

Standard home insurance covers falling tree damage

The good news is that standard home insurance policies do cover flying debris from windstorms, including when trees fall and damage homes or outbuildings, according to Rob de Pruis, the Insurance Bureau of Canada's national director of consumer and industry relations.

And contrary to popular opinion, if a tree on your property falls onto a neighbour's lot during a windstorm and causes damage to their property, their home insurance covers it, not yours, de Pruis said.

In either scenario, you could only be denied coverage or held responsible if the fallen tree is found to have been in poor condition and wasn't properly maintained.

That's why it's important to have trees regularly inspected, pruned and treated for any problems. If you notice a tree on your property is showing signs of decline — dying branches, smaller leaves, canopy loss, a sudden or gradual lean — have it dealt with immediately by hiring a certified and insured arborist to inspect it, provide advice and undertake any recommended maintenance.

This vehicle was crushed by a tree at a campground in Cloyne, Ont., southwest of Ottawa after the May 21 derecho windstorm. Standard auto insurance policies don't cover damage from falling trees and branches. (Kim Brown)

Call city to deal with problematic city-owned trees

If it's a tree on the city-owned portion of lawn that you're worried about, file a request with the city to have it inspected and dealt with.

As for vehicles being hit by fallen trees and branches, standard automobile insurance will not cover that type of damage. Optional comprehensive coverage is needed, de Pruis said.

"Trees do provide a lot of benefits, but there can be some inherent dangers when you have some major severe weather…. We just need to make sure that people are maintaining them properly and also to make sure that they're not creating hazardous situations," he said.

After the derecho, Runge said he's had homeowners ask to cut down healthy trees out of fear of future property damage.

A man in a baseball cap stands in front of downed trees.
Jason Pollard, a City of Ottawa forestry services section manager, says the city has received a lot of requests to plant trees in residential neighbourhoods after the derecho. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The city, meanwhile, said it hasn't seen an increase in tree removal permit requests after the storm.

They do come in but not often, and when they do forestry staff assess the tree and "may recommend pruning and regular monitoring to alleviate concerns over tree failure," Jason Pollard, a section manager for Ottawa's forestry department, wrote in an email.

In fact, the city has been inundated with requests to plant more trees, and they're still coming in.

"In the six weeks since the storm, we have received approximately the equivalent of six months of requests for residential tree planting," Pollard wrote.


Kristy Nease


CBC Ottawa reporter Kristy Nease has covered news in the capital for nearly 15 years, and previously worked at the Ottawa Citizen. She writes about a variety of subjects, including climate, intimate partner violence, health care and the courts. Get in touch: