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Falling Trees & Branches: Beware of the Widowmaker

Dangerous Falling Trees and Branches

Each year in California, falling trees and branches cause property damage, injuries, and even deaths.  The phenomenon is so prevalent that the dramatic term “widowmaker” has been coined by the forestry industry to describe a detached or dead branch hanging in a tree.  Because of potential liability associated with owning a property with large trees, many homeowners choose to have their trees cut down.  This may not be the best course of action if the tree is healthy.  Some trees are protected by law, and having a large tree on your land can significantly increase the property value.  In sunny regions such as Los Angeles, the shade a large tree provides can translate into hundreds of dollars in savings in air conditioning costs each year.

If you have large trees on your property it makes sense to consult a California certified arborist.  An arborist is trained to identify trouble spots that the untrained eye may not see. If you are curious and would like to do a visual inspection of your trees we have some information and tips below.  Be aware that a visual inspection is not a substitute for consulting with a professional.

Look at the Whole Tree

From a distance at which you can see the entire tree at once, notice the following:

  • Is the tree leaning? Which way?  Have you noticed the lean before?  If so, has the leaning increased in the past days or weeks?  Be aware that trees that lean toward the east are more at risk for falling since most heavy winds blow from the west
  • Do you see any large dead branches? If there are dead branches, how many?  Are there dead branches on only one side? Are they higher up or lower in the tree?
  • Does any part of the tree have bare branches without leaves?
  • Is the leaf cover thinner than usual?
  • Are leaves dropping earlier than similar trees in your neighborhood?
  • Do the fallen leaves look healthy?
  • Are any of the branches decaying from the tips?

If your tree displays any of the warning signs mentioned above, the tree may be unhealthy, imbalanced, dying, or at risk of falling over.  A tree professional should be called immediately.

Inspect the Ground Under the Tree, Including Visible Roots

Even a tree that looks vibrant and strong can have root problems.  Keep in mind that there are two types of roots: the large, structural, anchoring roots that hold up the tree will likely be visible to a certain extent.  There are also smaller roots that cannot be seen which provide soil nutrients and water to the tree. Visually inspect the trunk base as well as the ground surrounding the bottom of the tree.   Push aside mulch or ground cover to get a good look at the area where the trunk meets the ground. If there is raised soil or cracking, the tree could be uprooting.  

If there are mushrooms or other fungi near the roots and/or trunk, that is a sign of potential trunk or root decay.  Decaying of the anchor roots or trunk area puts the tree at risk of falling. Any root or tree base rot or signs of uprooting could lead to a very dangerous situation.  A certified arborist can help you decide whether the tree has to be cut down, or if it is safe to let the tree stand.

Inspect the Trunk

The trunk should be inspected thoroughly as it supports the great weight of the tree’s branches as well as the tree itself.  Inspect the trunk thoroughly.

  • Look for any holes (cavities) within the trunk as they can be dangerous depending on where they are located and their size and depth.  If the cavity is above eye level, an inspector may need to climb the tree in order to assess the cavity’s risk.
  • Splits and cracks in the trunk can also be very dangerous and could cause the entire tree to break or crash over at any time.
  • Areas on the trunk with missing bark or bark that is falling off most often point to a dead section of the trunk.  These signs may also indicate fungus, infection, or a surface wound.
  • After windy weather, visually inspect the trunk for cracks that look like a light-colored line contrasting with the natural dark color of the bark.  This could indicate a fresh crack and the tree could be splitting apart.

Again, if you see any of these signs of trunk trouble, call a certified arborist immediately.

Examine the Leaves and Branches – The Tree’s “Crown”

Within the crown of the tree is where you may find a Widowmaker – a large dead branch, poised to come crashing down.  Dead branches can be fairly easy to spot within a hardwood tree. A dead branch will showcase no leaves or dead brown leaves in contrast to the rest of the tree’s green leaves.  

Dead branches break off easily and should be quickly and carefully removed so that they do not drop on someone or something.  It is particularly important to look for dead branches before a big windstorm. After a strong storm, wait a month or so to inspect for a branch with brown leaves, as it will take time after the branch breaks for the leaves to die off.  

Watch the YouTube video: The video below discusses how high winds in the L.A. area have caused widespread damage.

Tree Safety Summary

  • Visually inspect the trees on your property often, especially before and after major weather events.
  • Have your trees professionally evaluated by an arborist every three years at a minimum, and immediately if you notice any of the warning signs discussed above.
  • Have the arborist prune/maintain your trees to remove any weak, ailing, broken, or dead branches.  Regular maintenance will keep your trees healthy and your neighbors safe.

Los Angeles Tree Injury Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Tree Injury Lawyer in Los Angeles. If a tree or tree branch has caused injuries to you or somebody you love, contact me at (800) 404-5400 or (213) 992-4300 to receive free and friendly advice.

I have worked with injured people for more than 38 years and have obtained successful settlements and verdicts.  Many of my prior clients have graciously reviewed the expert service my office provides:

I am a proud member of the following groups:

Picture: Free-Photos on Pixabay

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