Towering Hazards

Kath Heiman — 1 January 2016

Do you feel concerned when you pull into a state forest or other bush camp and look up to find it overhung by a towering eucalypt? I do.

It also puzzles me if I see a sign telling me to beware of falling branches and not to camp under the trees. I wonder: if someone’s gone to the trouble of putting up a sign warning of the hazard then perhaps the state shouldn’t be inviting me to camp here. Perhaps erecting a sign – and appealing to campers’ common sense – may not satisfy the state’s duty of care. After all, health and safety precautions for forestry workers insist on hard hats being worn in any forest at all times. So falling branches are recognised as a real and present danger in the bush.

It’s a vexed issue.

There have been a number of court cases here in Australia and overseas where people injured by falling trees or branches (or posthumously, their next of kin) have claimed damages against the owner-occupier of the land where the incident has occurred. Some of these cases were usefully summarised by Tony Wilson in an issue of the Australian Property Law Bulletin published in 2004. He quotes a Victorian case involving the Department of Natural Resources and Energy where the judge said: “The risk [of injury from falling or fallen trees or branches] is… part and parcel of the recreation of camping, walking and indeed living outdoors in the Australian bush and in particular in forest reserves.”

But this view doesn’t entirely address the issue. As usual, every case is considered on its merits and factors such as the location of the tree and relevant policy considerations may play a part in the establishing who bears the responsibility. Indeed, the existence of a warning sign is a factor that may push the obligation to take care more firmly on to your shoulders.

As campers, we should keep in mind that there are some particular characteristics of formed campsites that might actually increase the risks of falling branches by comparison to less populated areas. For example, compaction of soil by vehicles in parking and camping areas – or in the vicinity of picnic tables – is unfavourable to tree health. Uptake of water and nutrients by fine roots mostly occurs in the top 30cm of soil, and these fine roots are readily damaged and their regeneration impaired by soil compaction. A common result is dieback of branches in the crowns of the trees, and these will eventually be shed, becoming a danger to those below.

An associated danger is ‘widow makers’ – branches that are way up in the tree that have broken off and then lodged precariously in the crown. These could fall at any time, on campers or anyone else.

Indeed, it’s in the very nature of native eucalypts to drop limbs even on calm days. It’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to experimentation, but seasoned foresters have suggested that high temperatures may cause cracking of branches with existing rot. Other theories blame internal cracks or microscopic changes in tree cells (Kramer, Popular Mechanics, 17 May 2012).

The bottom line is that, when we choose to get outdoors, we must accept there are risks. Whether from stings, bites, sprains, burns or from being struck by a falling tree limb – without understanding how to mitigate these risks, a weekend away can turn from relaxation to tragedy in a matter of moments.

Check out the full feature in issue #97 February 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.


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