Early snow storms do tree-mendous amount of damage

The twin snowstorms that hit northern Colorado with an average of eight to 10 inches of snow on Oct. 25 and Nov. 1 snapped off thousands of tree branches all over the area. Not only did the downed limbs take out power lines, plunging residents into darkness for days, the breakage also had a profound effect on the trees themselves.

One of the towns hit hardest was Wellington.

“In the older parts of town the damage was significant,” said Wellington Town Administrator Larry Lorentzen. “We set up a place where people can dump their broken branches.”

The pile of broken limbs on the town-owned lot on the west bank of Boxelder Creek was very visible just before Thanksgiving, in some places topping the roofs of the storage sheds right next door.

“It’s going to cost the town about $10,000 just to rent a woodchipper to mulch all that stuff,” Lorentzen said. The mulch, which will be used on city grounds and given to anybody who wants to pick some up, could be ready in the next “couple of weeks,” he added.

Chrystal Winick, an operations supervisor with the Fort Collins Street Department, said by Thanksgiving crews had collected 45,000 cubic yards of downed wood from city property and through a curbside pickup service to Fort Collins residents. The city expects to have the cleanup completed in early December, at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

Larimer County did not offer branch pickup in unincorporated areas because of the sheer size of the county.

Fort Collins City Forester Tim Buchanan, who ranks blizzards by the amount of damage done to trees, said “(This) was one of the worst snowstorms we’ve had in the area.” He said it rivals the damage done by the storm on Sept. 20, 1995.

The problem with these early storms is that they hit while the trees still have plenty of leaves on them. That’s why the storm that started on Oct. 25 did the most tree damage.

“We had a nice fall with warm weather most of the time,” Buchanan said. “The trees were holding a lot of their leaves longer.”

The snow those leaves were holding was wet and heavy, too.

“I was hearing about water content of one inch out of the first snowstorm,” Buchanan said. “That’s a lot of water.”

James Klett, a professor of landscape horticulture, ornamentals, and nursery management at Colorado State University, said that trees that suffered the most in the two storms were weak-wooded varieties such as willows, cottonwoods, the fast-growing Siberian elm, and the little-known Callery Pear. Evergreens at higher elevations came through relatively unscathed.

Klett said to save their damaged trees, homeowners should clear out any broken branches that haven’t snapped completely off now instead of waiting for regular spring pruning. Larimer County Forester Dave Lentz agreed that the best way to protect deciduous trees is to prune early and prune often.

“If you look at some of the trees that came down, you can see they had suffered past damage, and some had decay all the way down the stem,” Lentz said. “People need to look at preventive maintenance to help the trees withstand future damage.”

The best thing is to start regular major pruning three to five years after the tree is in the ground, Lentz said, with preventive pruning every five to 10 years. If homeowners hire arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture to do the job right, it could cost a few hundred dollars,

“But over the 20-, 30-, 40-year life of the tree, it could be cheaper than the $5,000 to replace it,” he said — not to mention whatever collateral damage it could cause in the next early season storm.

Advice on pruning backyard trees — as well as advice on the most resilient varieties to plant — can be found at PlantTalk.org, the city of Fort Collins’ website at www.fcgov.com/forestry, or the ISA at www.isa-arbor.com/

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