Derecho has changed Ottawa’s tree canopy forever: ‘This is worse than the tornado’

Storms typically take down spruce and pine, with their shallower roots, not the hardwoods, not the big maples and oaks that shape a neighbourhood

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Ottawa arborist Ryan Burns expected trees would fall on the weekend. He saw a splash of deep red hurtling across the weather radar on Saturday and got ready for calls from homeowners. But what has shocked him in the 48 hours since that violent string of thunderstorms swept across southern Ontario and Quebec, is the type of trees that fell.

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Storms typically take down spruce and pine, with their shallower root systems, not the hardwoods, not the big maples, oaks and poplars that shape the character of a neighbourhood.

But Saturday’s thunderstorm was different. Environment Canada clocked wind speeds faster than 130 kilometres per hour — the sort of wind that can rip shingles off roofs, tear metal siding from buildings and, apparently, split mature hardwoods in half, or pull them completely from the earth. Burns has seen old maples knocked on their sides, with their roots hanging like unplugged cords.
“That doesn’t happen,” he said on Monday. “The landscape of Ottawa will never be the same.”

Meteorologists are calling the storm a derecho — a line of thunderstorms that started in southwestern Ontario and moved east through Toronto to the Ottawa Valley, hitting each region in a brief but intense burst that killed 10 people in total, most by fallen trees, and left hundreds of thousands without power for days. Experts are still scanning the damage for signs of rotating wind, to determine whether any tornadoes occurred inside the derecho.

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Environment Canada meteorologist Gerald Cheng said he’s seen derechos in Ontario before, but not one that has swept across a series of dense population centres, leaving so much death and destruction in its wake.

“It’s rare,” he said. “I have not seen it in my career.”

Southern Ottawa is one of two “areas of concern” where tornadoes may have happened on Saturday, Cheng said. The city’s population of trees was already culled by a tornado that ripped through the region in 2018.

Burns worked clearing trees during the aftermath of the 2018 tornado and he worked this weekend. “This is worse than the tornado,” he said. “The amount of trees down, the amount of old growth that’s come down — we didn’t have those trees to lose.”

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On top of the trees lost to the 2018 tornado, Ottawa has been facing an infestation of emerald ash borer — an invasive beetle that has killed millions of ash trees in Canada. The ash borer has deformed the look of residential streets in Ottawa, where ash trees made up about a quarter of the canopy, according to city Councillor Scott Moffatt.

“The last thing we want to do is lose mature trees, and that’s clearly what happened this weekend,” said Moffatt, who chairs the city’s environment committee. “I’ve seen a lot of big, healthy mature trees completely uprooted. And those are gone forever. You can’t replace those overnight.”

Driving around the city over the weekend, Burns kept seeing piles of brush on the roadsides. He responded to one call where an 85-foot pine tree has crashed through the roof of a bungalow in Nepean, in the city’s west end.

“Every other house you look at, there’s trees down,” he said. And for each of those houses, it’ll take decades until those front yards or backyards get their old tree back.

That’s years of lost shade in summer, thinner piles of leaves in fall. But for the people who’ve lived there, it also means the tree they grew up with, the one they climbed, the one whose chestnut shells pricked their bare feet on sunny days, that prominent backdrop of their memories, it’s gone.

National Post, with additional reporting by The Canadian Press

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