The 2014 Ice Storm; Impact On Toronto’s Trees

Peter Kuitenbrouwer | January 17, 2014 | Last Updated: Jan 17 9:57 PM ET

Behind a locked gate labeled “Urban Forestry” on Unwin Avenue in the Port of Toronto roars a huge and terrifying machine. As big as a transport truck, this blue steel, Oregon-built Peterson 6700B is what its owner, Walker Industries, calls a “horizontal high-speed grinder.” The City of Toronto’s Solid Waste division, which contracted the services of the machine, calls it a “tub grinder.”

As I watch this week, a new yellow Volvo front-end loader seizes huge oak, maple, birch and ash logs, many thicker than phone poles, from an epic pile. The Volvo dumps the logs in the grinder. With a metallic growl, the machine’s big teeth chew the trunks to shreds. A conveyor belt spits the shreds into a growing mound at the far end of the yard.

“We’re much more ramped up because of the ice storm,” says Mike Watt, executive vice-president of Walker Environmental Group. “Everybody’s looking for grinders.”

Never in Toronto’s history has a storm exacted such a toll on our forest. Still, does it make sense to grind all these trees up for mulch? Many in the city’s forestry sector, which employs 25,000 people, are pleading for a more creative approach to reusing one of Canada’s most famous and historic resources: our trees. We can transform the trees into furniture, flooring, or even burn them to keep warm. The City of Chicago, for example, in recent years has begun selling its street trees for reuse.

“The city needs to think as a forestry operation,” says Dr. Sandy Smith, professor in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. “They see trees as a problem rather than as a resource. It’s a money-making venture if you could get it organized.”


The ice storm created an emergency: trees lying all over streets, sidewalks, yards, parks and ravines. The City of Toronto pushed the whole calamity over to its Solid Waste division, allocating $24.4-million to “remove and dispose of the debris” from the ice storm.

Jim Harnum, general manager of Solid Waste, appears a model of efficiency; on Tuesday he had 161 crews at work removing broken trees and branches from all over the city.

“We are hoping to get another 60 or even 80 crews,” he says. This week he called for help from the Ontario Arborists’ Association, Ontario Landscape Association and Ontario Sewer and Water Main Association.

Walker has three high-speed grinders working full tilt for the city right now, and is hauling some of this mulch to a landscaper in Toronto. Some may also find uses as a biofilter, Mr. Watt says. “It’s a bit of a logistics exercise,” he adds. “There is so much [mulch.]“

Long before the ice storm, Robert McMonagle in the city’s economic development division began exploring creative reuse of city trees. When wind in July blew over the historic silver maple that inspired Alexander Muir’s patriotic song, The Maple Leaf Forever, Mr. McMonagle moved quickly to save the wood. An exhibit opening Monday at Agora Café on Dundas Street West celebrates designers who turned pieces of the maple into lamps, chandeliers and even headphones. The city will use some of the maple to make gavels for Toronto council and the four community councils, along with shelving for the Toronto Reference Library.

In a similar vein, Mr. McMonagle wants the city to find creative uses for the trees the ice storm felled.

“As soon as the wood is sent over to Solid Waste, it’s garbage,” he says. “I see those big honking trees coming down, and it’s waste? Come on! We should look at trees as we look at a side of beef. Every part has value.”

Dennis Hale, co-owner of Storyboard Furniture Ltd., last summer milled, on site, a white oak that died in the back yard of a Rosedale home. The wood is drying for six months in his kiln. He then plans to transform the planks into a dining room table, keeping the oak in the family for years to come.

Mr. Hale hopes to get more business from homeowners looking to reuse trees felled in the ice storm. “There’s a couple of leads,” he says. “A lot of people are waiting on insurance claims. There’s a lot of triage.”

When the ice storm crippled Toronto Hydro’s grid, wood-burning fireplaces provided the only heat in many stately Rosedale, Forest Hill and Leaside homes. Today it seems ironic, if not absurd, that we would view all this downed wood as a disposal challenge. Is it not, at the very least, firewood?

Urban Forestry at the city two years ago formalized a bidding process for companies interested in buying the trees it cuts down on city land or in parks.

Glenn Harrington operates Firewood Solutions on a lot he rents from the city on Unwin, beside where the horizontal grinder growls. He supplies homeowners and 12 restaurants with firewood from city trees. Recently he won a bid to buy downed trees from the city, to cut into firewood. Still, today he can’t get access to the Urban Forestry logs on Unwin. “I am waiting for the wheels of government to turn,” he says.

Oslo and other cities in Norway get most of their heat from high-efficiency furnaces which burn “biomass” — usuallly wood. To power its furnaces, Norway imports waste wood from Canada. If Norway can heat with our wood, why can’t we?

“The biomass burners at district energy heating systems in Stockholm are almost as efficient as natural gas,” says Mr. McMonagle. “There’s no smoke, and very little pollution. Heaven forbid that we think of using wood as a source of energy, even though we heated Toronto with wood until the end of the 19th century.”