Gold in them hills? Rush on to harvest fallen Dandenongs trees

As the relief effort subsides following one of the worst storms in living memory, residents in the Dandenong Ranges are starting to wonder: what do we do with all these fallen trees?

Thousands of trunks and branches crashed to the ground earlier this month when Victoria was smashed by a savage combination of high winds and heavy rain. In the Dandenongs, trees as tall as 60 metres fell onto houses, across roads and through power lines.

Nick Schill milling the fallen trees on site at Julia Hall’s friend’s Kalorama property, where 14 blackwoods fell.Credit:Joe Armao

Now, with the timber industry facing a supply shortage, a rush is on to get access to the best intact lengths of mountain ash, blackwood and gum trees for use as furniture, floorboards and other building materials.

While some trees have already been cut up for firewood or chipped into mulch, the highest-quality lumber could be worth thousands of dollars per square metre.

“First we were thinking ‘how do we get that tree off our house?’ Now it’s: ‘how do we use it?’,” said Julia Hall in Kalorama.

“What a beautiful story to have these trees that Mother Nature pushed over be reused in the rebuild phase.”

Julia Hall and Nick Schill with one of the fallen blackwoods.Credit:Joe Armao

Ms Hall, a self-confessed “wood nut” who has worked in the timber industry, is planning to have the blackwoods that fell across her friend’s property milled onsite by a local woodworking company and made into furniture.

Blackwood timber can fetch $5000 per cubic metre once it’s dried, milled and processed.

“Because of the timber shortage the prices have gone through the roof, that’s a real positive up here,” she said.

“People don’t understand what they’ve got, don’t give it away. If you’re not sure what you’ve got find an expert.”

State-owned company VicForests has offered to buy trees that have fallen on private property, asking those with trunks at least three metres in length and 40cm in diameter to email for a quote.

VicForests CEO Monique Dawson said more than 100 Victorian residents, mainly in the Dandenongs, had so far enquired about selling their fallen timber since the storm.

Depending on the species and quality, the trees could be used for anything from staircases and guitars to pulp for paper.

“Any large old tree that is in good condition, someone will be able to put a really good price on that,” she said.

“So the older the tree, generally, the better the characteristics for higher value products like furniture or staircases or floorboards; they give you that beautiful grain.”

Ms Dawson said she had seen “heartbreaking” examples of hardwood chopped up for firewood or chipped into bark mulch.

Massive trees fell like ninepins near Mount Dandenong Primary School. Credit:Joe Armao

“A beautiful bit of timber, and it would have been somebody’s lovely dining table for 100 years and it’s been put through someone’s fireplace or the chooks are going to be scratching around in it,” she said.

Ms Dawson said prices would depend on the quality and quantity of trees available in any one area, as well as labor costs.

She said moist trees like the ones in the hills could lay for up to two years before deteriorating, however the company would attempt to deal with all the wood by the start of the next fire season.

Jim Magee, a timber industry veteran of 45 years, said all species of eucalypts in the Dandenongs would fetch roughly between $300 and $350 per cubic metre unprocessed.

But he said residents may be offered far less, or no money at all, due to the costs involved in retrieving the wood from hard to reach areas. However it would save them paying for removal.

“That timber is going to be very expensive to move to a mill,” he said.

The sheer scale of work is evident in the backlog of work for local arborists like John McKenna, whose team has safely brought down 200 dangerous trees threatening houses since the storm and now has jobs banked up until Christmas.

One of John McKenna’s team works to bring down one of the storm affected trees in the Dandenongs.Credit:Tree Range Arborists

Mr McKenna’s team, who are technical climbers who bring down enormous “widowmaker” trees up to 80 metres high piece by piece, are in high demand because so many properties in the hills are inaccessible for cherry pickers and cranes.

“It’s crazy and honestly, I’m really struggling to manage it,” he said. “We’ve got jobs flying at us from all over the place.”

The number of trees impacted by the storm is still incalculable, according to the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning, however thousands are estimated to have fallen.

Yarra Ranges mayor Fiona McAllister said council had already removed enough trees from roads and roadsides to fill the MCG.

She acknowledged that residents faced a significant challenge in getting rid of large trees and branches from their properties.

“Some of the trees that have fallen are 50-60 metres in length, and will be difficult to manage, particularly in the Dandenongs,” she said.

Cr McAllister called on the state and federal governments to help council deal with the problem.

“We need funding to enable council to continue clearing the material we are collecting from roads and roadsides, and resources to enable the community to remove larger material off their own properties,” she said.

Yarra Ranges is organising a collection of smaller trees and branches from residents, with the debris turned into mulch for public collection.

Authorities have also said they will make firewood available for the community in designated areas – but only when it’s safe to do so.

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