Kathy Kennedy has lived 40 years in the same house in Cedar Ridge and she remembers seeing more than 20 ponderosa pines die on her property all at the same time about two years ago.

“The needles were turning brown,” Kennedy, 72, said Wednesday sitting on her deck with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Cordelia, next to the broken stump of one of the drought-stressed, beetle-killed trees. “We were surrounded by dead trees. I’m the one hardest hit in this neighborhood.”

A month ago, one of the dead ponderosas fell in a gust of wind and came to rest leaning against the peaked roof of her three-bedroom, three-bath, three-story home. It caused no damage, but now Kennedy says she and Cordelia go stay at a neighbor’s place whenever the wind blows.

“It’s too dangerous,” Kennedy said. “Five of these trees are close enough to fall and hit my place.”

As she spoke. tree fallers with a Groveland-based contractor hollered close by and a dead ponderosa came crashing to the earth just downhill from Kennedy’s deck. The weakened, dried-out tree broke into pieces as it smashed into the ground.

“It’s so scary when those trees fall down,” Kennedy said, holding onto Cordelia. “These guys are class.”

Kennedy was talking about the contractor, Nic Fries with Sierra Nevada Tree Removal, his workers, and volunteers with the local nonprofit Tree Mortality Aid Program of Tuolumne County. Glenn Gottschall, a registered, professional forester who volunteers as a tree removal coordinator with TMAP, estimated it’s costing about $400 a tree to take down 18 dead ponderosas on Kennedy’s property.

“I can’t afford that,” Kennedy said. “I retired two years ago and I have knee and back disabilities. The cost would have been too much.”

Dead trees around Kennedy’s home appeared to be about 150 years old and some of them stood up to 130 feet tall, Gottschall said. Rings on a fresh-cut stump cross-section showed one former tree was 160 years old.

Gottschall says the nonprofit Tree Mortality Aid Program has raised about $145,000 to remove more than 250 dead and dying trees since September 2016. People with TMAP are hoping to complete their work on about 10 properties in Twain Harte, Confidence, Crystal Falls, Phoenix Lake, and elsewhere in Cedar Ridge by early March.

There are about 55 dead trees on those 10 remaining properties, Gottschall said. When TMAP’s work is done next month, the nonprofit will have helped fixed-income seniors and disabled property owners cover the costs of removing more than 300 dead trees from 56 parcels in Tuolumne County, Gottschall said.

Local emergency

In November 2016, the Forest Service estimated more than 102 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada since 2010 due to drought stress and beetle infestation, with mortality reaching emergency levels in a region including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Gottschall and other volunteers like Rick Whybra, with the Yosemite Foothills FireSafe Council in Groveland, have been working the past year and a half with TMAP and the Area 12 Agency on Aging to help property owners like Kennedy and Irwin Schwartz, 74.

Schwartz had a beetle-stressed tree crash through the roof of his home of South Fork Road more than a year ago. A TMAP contractor removed more than a half-dozen standing dead trees from Schwartz’ place west of Twain Harte in September.

To be eligible for assistance from TMAP, applicants have had to meet eligibility requirements. They must be 60 or older, or disabled, and they must meet income limits established by Area 12 Agency on Aging staff. Kristin Millhoff with Area 12 said Wednesday single-occupant applicants had to show annual income totaling $29,700 or less, and dual-occupant applicants had to show their annual combined income did not exceed $40,050.

Since September 2012, TMAP volunteers have evaluated 98 applicant parcels for dead trees, and identified 56 applicant parcels as eligible for Tree Mortality Aid Program assistance. The other 42 parcels were eligible for help from PG&E, other public utilities or Tuolumne County, or it was determined the dead trees on their properties did not threaten their homes.

As of Wednesday, Gottschall calculated the cost of TMAP tree removals at $103,089, with an average $437 per tree.

People with the nonprofit Tree Mortality Aid Program estimate they’ve raised $145,000 total so far and they are not seeking any more donations or grants, Gottschall said. Donations and grants include $85,000 from Pacific Gas & Electric, $20,000 from the Sonora Area Foundation and $5,000 from Sierra Pacific Industries.

“At this point we can cover what we’ve got,” Gottschall said. “We hope to be done by early March.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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