William Howse & Samuel Cowie

Promoting understanding and research into how and why Australian trees fail

At some point or time during the life of a tree, failure will occur, either in the trunk, roots or branches of the tree.  With this in mind some of the general public either regard trees as a hazard or a potential disaster waiting to happen, just ask any council tree officer.  As arborists we understand how trees may fail and look for potential failure points or hazard in the trees that we assess.  So how do we know what to look for?

There are three sources that teach us to look for hazard potential in a tree.  One is from the findings of published research that is commonly available in the arboricultural literature we read or study, of which names such as Shigo, Matheny & Clark, and Mattheck are well known to Australian arborists.  Second is from historical data that may be available from newspapers, council records or historical societies.  This information may be limited in technical data such as cavity size etc, but may still give us an idea into how and why the tree failed from photos and statements made at the time.  Third is our own personal observations from seeing failures that occur in our day to day lives, as it is a rare arborist that walks past a failure without having a look and forming an opinion as to why failure occurred.

An arborist may see hundreds or even thousands of failures during their career, and may form opinions on anything from an individual tree species failure patterns, to the failure potential of a particular structural problem.  All of this information generally stays with the individual arborist, and apart from some dissemination of data in talking with fellow arborists, is likely to be lost with the retirement or death of the individual.  All lost to the general community knowledge base of Australian arboriculture.

This is where the Australian Tree Failure Database (ATFD) comes in.  It seeks to gather all of this data into a central database and make it available back to the Australian arborists and researchers in the field.  The aim of the ATFD is:

  • To collect failure information from arborists around Australia
  • Provide a central database for collection
  • Provide collected data back to arborists and researchers
  • Encourage and assist research by students and researchers
  • Encourage discussion and understanding on why and how Australian trees fail

The idea is similar to the Californian Tree Failure Report Program (CTFRP) that was started in the early nineties.  The ATFD was started as a practical project based on the CTFRP, by W Howse and S Cowie, for the diploma of arboriculture course taught by Judy Fakes at Ryde TAFE.  From this beginning and with the encouragement Judy Fakes, this TAFE project has gone onto form a voluntary organisation with the aim of continuing the ATFD and spreading its use throughout the Australian arboricultural industry.

Currently there is a website (www.atfd.org) setup inform arborists about the ATFD, to provide participating arborists with the form and guide, and to help collect data back from arborists.  In the future the ATFD hopes to:

  • Provide members with a quarterly email newsletter of updates about the ATFD, members comments, and reported failures etc
  • Expand the website to include:
    1. A discussion site
    2. Internet search access to the database
    3. Display the latest failures
    4. Notice board of research projects underway
  • Find volunteers prepared to assist in the development and maintenance of the ATFD
  • Have a volunteer in each state or territory act as a spokesperson and contact for the ATFD
  • Find industry funding to maintain the ATFD
  • Continuing refinement and development of the form, guide, database, and website
  • Maybe even study trees that haven’t failed

So have a read of the guide, study the form and investigate the website, and when you see a tree fail then your information may help future generations of researchers and arborists, including yourself, around Australia.