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Trees: What to do after the storm hits

Chicagoans saw their trees uprooted, split in half, falling onto cars and houses. We gathered some information on what to do afterwards.

This tree on North Paulina Street in Lake View was split by Monday’s storm.
This tree on North Paulina Street in Lake View was split by Monday’s storm.
Andy Boyle/Sun-Times

The ‘derecho’ storm that hit Chicago Monday felled thousands of trees, leaving downed trunks and limbs scattered across yards, streets and sidewalks.

Afterward, 5,600 emergency calls were placed to the city’s Bureau of Forestry, according to Deputy Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation Malcolm Whiteside. The forestry bureau is part of that department.

Many homeowners may still wonder about what’s next — how to remove the trees, what to do about broken limbs still teetering in the branches, how to save damaged trees, or how to replace their favorite maple.

Where does my private land end, and public land begin? And how does this affect how I deal with storm-damaged trees around me?

Although it’s clear the street is public land and your yard is private, the interactions between private and public land and property beyond that get trickier.

The sidewalk and the parkway — that patch of land between the sidewalk and the street— are public land. However, as homeowner, it’s your job to mow the parkway and keep the sidewalk clear (shoveling snow, for instance). But if a tree falls there, you can call 311 to ask the city remove it because the tree is public property.

If a tree growing on your property, like in your yard, falls into a public area, the city would clear the public way but would leave the rest of tree or debris on your property.

If a tree growing on public property, such as in the parkway, falls onto private land or property, then “we’re responsible,” said Whiteside. “That tree is ours.”

And if your tree falls from your yard into a neighbor’s yard, then it’s their job to remove the tree from their yard. And vice versa, if it happens to you.

This tree was uprooted in the 1600 block of West Jarvis Avenue when a severe storm and tornado passed over Rogers Park on Monday, Aug. 10.
This tree was uprooted in the 1600 block of West Jarvis Avenue when a severe storm and tornado passed over Rogers Park on Monday.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times file

How can I remove fallen trees, branches, or other debris from public land? Who should I call and when?

Contact the Bureau of Forestry if the tree is on public property — either by calling 311 or submitting a service request to them online. If you’re doing it online, there are different forms for different services, and you will also need to make an account so that you can track your request.

What can I do about the detached limbs still hanging from trees?

“Hold tight. We are getting to it,” said forestry bureau spokesperson Cristina Villarreal. Trying to deal with hanging branches or damaged trees yourself can be dangerous or cause more harm if you don’t have the expert training.

Think the city isn’t responding fast enough? It may be because the branch is considered “lower risk.” The city prioritizes hanging branches and similar damage “based on safety concerns,” said Villarreal.

Those priorities are spelled out in the city’s multi-phase response to tree emergencies after a storm:

  1. Moving trees and debris out of streets and into parkways to clear the path for emergency vehicles.
  2. Moving trees and risky dangling limbs away from houses, cars, and sidewalks.
  3. Clearing debris out of the public way, including parkways.
  4. Examining still-standing damaged trees to see which pose a risk and which can be preserved.

How can I tell if a damaged tree can’t be saved?

If the tree in in your own yard, hire a certified arborist, says Melissa Custic, an arborist with the Morton Arboretum. “People don’t realize how dangerous tree care work is,” she said. Also, incorrect pruning can also expose a tree to pathogens and diseases.

In deciding whether a tree needs to be chopped down, said Custic, the city looks at the type of tree, its existing health condition, and how much of its canopy it has lost.

This tree in the 1600 block of West Jarvis Avenue split into several pieces during a severe storm Monday.
This tree in the 1600 block of West Jarvis Avenue split into several pieces during a severe storm Monday.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

My tree has been removed, and now I’m left with a stump. How can I get rid of it?

The city will grind down stumps on public property; the remaining holes are filled in with wood chips, or by planting another tree.

Removing the stump from your property is your problem.

If there’s a stump in the parkway, you can 311 to file a work order. But public stump removal takes time and requires the proper conditions. Contractors can’t grind stumps in stormy weather or snow, said Whiteside, who oversees the forestry bureau. That means there’s a backlog of stump-removal requests from around the city.

Can I get a new tree to replace the one I lost to the storm?

While the city won’t plant a tree in your yard, you can ask to have a tree planted for free in a parkway— you can fill a request online or call 311.

But reduced funding and resources means that it will take time to plant a new tree, if you file a request through the city. Re-planting a fallen tree in a parkway is not an automatic process, because the city often relies on residents to ask for one. “We understand it’s [city] property,” said Whiteside, “but we want to make sure that somebody ... actually wants the tree.”

Although it’s free for you to request a new tree, each tree costs the city about $500 to plant, said Whiteside.

“Some of these trees [felled in the storm] were planted 30, 40, 50 years ago, and we didn’t have landscape guidelines like we have now,” said Whiteside. That’s why it may take a awhile for the city to decide whether a tree should be replaced, and with what.

However, Custic says that you can try to circumvent any delays by working with non-profits such as Openlands, which gives grants to groups of neighbors interested in planting trees.

Is it legal to plant a tree on public property myself?

No.

A downed tree blocks a road in the Lake View neighborhood after storms swept through the area Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.
A downed tree limb blocks a roadway in Lake View after Monday’s storm,
AP file

Do some neighborhoods have bigger, older trees that might be more susceptible to dying? How can I ensure the old trees in my neighborhood are protected, and will more be planted if they die?

Yes, in some neighborhoods, a majority of the trees are older — but those more mature trees, according to Deputy Commissioner Whiteside, are often less susceptible to storm damage because their bigger, deeper roots make them more stable.

In terms of protection, the Bureau of Forestry has partnered with other groups for the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. The goal is to increase tree conservation and plant more trees. Custic coordinates the initiative. She said neighborhoods with older trees are less of a priority because the city is trying to make up for decades of disinvestment in other areas where fewer trees were planted. The planting policy is outlined on the initiative’s priority map.

I want to apply to plant a new tree. What’s the best tree to plant?

The variety you want may not be best for your neighborhood, depending on the soil. Chicago also wants to diversify its trees, after pests including the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer targeted specific types.

“We diversified every block because we don’t want to get hit with another infestation,” said Whiteside. But “we try to give the residents an option,” providing a list of trees that may be suited to residents’ areas.

There is also an Tree Selector Tool created by the Morton Arrboretum that allows you to enter your living details and choose the best tree for your site.