The death of an eight-year-old school girl resulting from a fallen tree limb at her school in Sydney’s Northwest has reignited debate over the suitability of large trees in public spaces, and the need for systemised procedures for assessing and monitoring higher-risk species of trees. Last month Bridget Wright had been in the playground of Pitt Town Public School at lunchtime when a seven-metre Eucalypt tree branch unexpectedly fell on top of her, a teacher and two other school children. As the Daily Telegraph reported, the four victims were rushed to Westmead Hospital, where Bridget sadly passed away within hours. The others were treated for other injuries including broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a broken wrist. A Development Application had recently been approved for the removal of 35 trees located at the rear of the school that were deemed high risk, however the particular tree that killed the school girl was at the front of the school and its removal was not apparently planned. Media reports following the incident suggested that some trees in the school yard had been marked by witches hats to mark ‘no go’ areas during high winds. At the time of the incident, there was apparently no significant wind recorded.
The Department of Education was unable to comment on whether the tree that killed Bridget had been assessed or reported on recently, because of an ongoing investigation into the state of the tree; however there have since been calls for a state-wide safety audit of all trees on land owned by public schools.
While trees in schools and public spaces undeniably provide a range of benefits including shade and biodiversity, certain tree species present more significant hazards, particularly large, older species in high thoroughfare areas or where the trees cover seating areas or are a central feature of an event site or playground. Some sub-species of Eucalypt and Hills Figs are examples of species that grow large in size and that have a reputation for losing limbs. But the issue of failing limbs is not just common to these groups.
In 2000, an old melaleuca tree fell on a tent at Myall Lakes campground killing a man and causing serious spinal injuries to his wife on a windless day. In 1998, the Shoalhaven City Council was found by the Supreme Court to be liable for the death of Gordon Timbs, a man who had repeatedly requested permission to cut down a 25-metre gum tree on his property that eventually fell and killed him. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, the council had apparently inspected the tree and declared it safe, without employing an appropriately qualified arborist to assess potential defects such as bark inclusions, a condition resulting from divergent stems within the tree causing lopsidedness.
Bridget’s death tragically echoes the story of nine-year-old Aidan Bott, who died in 2006 from being struck by a fallen branch of an African Mahogany tree in his Northern Territory school’s playground. A coroner’s inquest into his death recommended that compulsory tree audits take place bi-annually at schools to prevent largely avoidable incidents, however education officials across Australia have not yet established a protocol to regularly screen for high risk trees in schools.