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Wild weather sparks worrying 'knee-jerk reaction' hurting koalas

It's easy to fear trees towering over your street, but you're more likely to win the lottery than be killed by one in your home.

Look closer at an image of a euycalyptus that was “shredded” during wild weather and you’ll see a tiny koala clutching to its destroyed trunk. At least four others died nearby when their trees crashed to the ground as wild weather pummelled the Gold Coast.

The future of surviving koalas is far from secure, and some are asking how much more they can bear. Several struck by cars after the Christmas Day tornado are believed to have ventured onto roads in search of new territory.

Eucalyptus trees left standing are now crucial to koala recovery in the north of the region, as the species is already declining due to widespread chlamydia infection, and habitat destruction. But the people living under them are concerned branches could come crashing down and destroy their homes or even kill them. Now there's a growing trend of homeowners calling for many of the remaining trees to be felled.

A koala in Helensvale in a tree that has lost its canopy.
A koala in Helensvale was photographed clinging to the top of a tree that lost its canopy during the Christmas storms. Source: Supplied

“Scared” is how some residents say they’ve been left feeling by the trees that remain standing over their homes. Dozens have taken to social media forums, saying they value the environment but are worried for their safety.

Some have suggested replacing the towering eucalyptus with smaller native plants, however, doing so would create a problem for the region’s surviving koalas who rely on mature trees for food. Arborists warn removing trees could actually make the area less safe because the canopy helps reduce wind speeds.

How likely am I to be killed by a tree in my home?

While there’s no doubt that some decaying or diseased trees and branches do pose a risk to humans and their homes, the chance of being killed by a tree in Australia is 1 in 5 million.

The likelihood of accidental tree failure killing you in your house is even lower at 1 in 189 million. Compare that with dying from melanoma — 1 in 13,500, being killed by an animal — 1 in 830,000, or even winning Saturday Lotto — 1 in 8.1 million.

Consulting arborist Mark Hartley specialises in keeping trees healthy and manageable. The risk of death from a tree is so low, he suspects felling one that had been sheltering a playground could actually increase mortality, because the extra sunshine's potential to trigger a melanoma would be more of a risk than the tree ever was.

“There’s a perception the risk from trees is high, but the reality is the risk from trees is about 12 times lower than the risk associated with beds in Australia,” he said. “If we look at the mortality rate per tree, it’s one death per every 10 million trees in areas adjacent to high urban use.”

Statistics on how likely it is you'll be hit by a tree.
Arborist Mark Hartley has used official sources to compare the threat of trees to animals, murder and asthma. Source: Mark Hartley/Supplied

Most of the tree damage Hartley sees is in areas where microburst weather events have occurred — usually less than within a 2km radius, but widespread social media and news coverage can lead those not on the ground to believe the damage is more widespread.

“We extrapolate it out. We say look, 10 trees, or 100 trees have come down in this area and the expectation is that’s it's uniform, so the human brain thinks that’s going to happen here,” Harley said. “The actual risk is so small that it’s absurd.”

Why trees left standing after storm are a good sign

Sam Hardingham from Everyday Arbor agrees with Hartley's risk assessments. He notices a spike in calls from people living close to extreme weather events who will ask for perfectly healthy, low-risk trees to be removed.

A boy looking at the storm damage.
The clean-up on the Gold Coast continues, weeks after the region was hit by wild weather. Source: AAP
A crashed down sign in Helensvale near a bus stop.
Some Helensvale residents are understandably scared by the trees that survived the storm. Source: AAP

“There are knee-jerk reactions. But what a lot of people do is count the trees that fell over, rather than the ones left standing,” he said.

If a tree has weathered one storm then he believes it's "a pretty good sign” it will survive the next one, but also the weather-power needed to topple a healthy tree is unlikely to occur twice in the same lifetime.

“But I empathise with homeowners. I can see that it's easy to start catastrophising and say I can imagine that falling over and it would cause a lot of damage. But the reality is it’s very unlikely to happen.”

Future of koalas under threat

The Gold Coast still contains some well-maintained corridors of bushland. Some residents frustrated by the slow process of cleaning up after the storms have taken matters into their own hands and begun removing trees and branches seen as threats.

Koala rescuer Amy Wregg said she understands local fears, but she’s also concerned about the future of the region’s wildlife. She’s continuing to tend to animals struggling with weeks-old fractures from the storms, and even healthy koalas are finding it difficult to find food on some streets.

“A lot of old mature trees have come down. It’s not like a bushfire where they can just regenerate new leaves. They're being completely uprooted,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to be dire for these guys now.”

Left: a dead mother koala. Right: a dead baby koala in hand.
A mother and baby koala could not be saved after they were hit by a car metres from where several trees had fallen in the storms. Source: Amy Wregg/WildCare/WIRES

She's particularly concerned about the animals living in the storm-hit Gold Coast suburbs of Helensvale and Coombabah. They're particularly important because koalas living north in Coomera are losing large swathes of bushland to new roads and houses.

In less than a decade, prime habitat has been replaced with a Westfield, a KFC, a McDonald’s, and the state government is planning to remove even more trees to build a new hospital and a major road. During that time the species has been listed as vulnerable to extinction, and then uplisted to endangered.

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