Irwin Schwartz, 74, remembers a year ago when a beetle-stressed tree toppled and crashed through the roof at his place on Joe Hooke Lane, off South Fork Road and west of Twain Harte Lake.

“I was on the deck here having a smoke and I heard it leaning, ‘enh, enh, enh’ then ‘wham!’ ” Schwartz said Tuesday. “No one was hurt. It was raining, so some water came in. We got the roof fixed in about a week.”

Then he wondered when other stressed, weakened ponderosa and cedar trees would start to fall toward his place. He couldn’t afford the rates some tree-removal crews were charging, up to $1,000 a tree.

“We had anxiety during the day and fear at night,” Schwartz said, speaking for himself, his wife, Maria, and their dog, Dodger. “High wind was my biggest fear.”

Helping hands

Schwartz eventually learned about a local nonprofit organization called the Tree Mortality Aid Program, launched by Sonora Lions Club members in September 2016 to help low-income seniors and disabled adults who live where weakened trees threaten their homes.

The Forest Service last year 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.

With help from the Area 12 Agency on Aging and donations from other nonprofit organizations like the Sonora Area Foundation, people with the Tree Mortality Aid Program have raised about $125,000 so far and hope to reach $150,000 to take out more than 225 trees threatening as many as 95 properties in Tuolumne County, said Glenn Gottschall, a program coordinator with TMAP.

“We’re still accepting applications,” Gottschall said Tuesday at the Schwartz family place. “We want to get as many dead trees as we can, for those who have signed up, before this December, before the heavy winter starts.”

A tree at a time

Brian Finigan with Ace Tree Service and a crew of workers started falling trees about 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Schwartz place. The problem trees were up on a rise, dead and dying ponderosa and cedar mixed in with healthy trees. Some of the sick trees were up to 125 feet tall.

Finigan’s crew worked in helmets, goggles, gloves and leather chaps with chainsaws, axes, wedges, ropes, a diesel-powered Bobcat and other tools and equipment.

For one of the biggest remaining trees that had to come down, they rigged a system of leveraged ropes and made surgical cuts at the tree’s base to ensure it would fall uphill into a gap between live trees, away from the Schwartz place and other homes nearby.

“All this cut wood will go to the county yard,” Finigan said. “They’ll chip it at the Chinese Station plant and make power.”

The trees Finigan and his crew were working on Tuesday should have been removed a year ago, Finigan said.

‘Legit hazard trees’

“The decomposition is so far gone they’re difficult to deal with,” he said. “These are legit hazard trees. They’re so dry the internal structure is already gone. There’s already evidence of failure. One hit the house last year. These trees can’t take much more, just standing there.”

Finigan said the trees that needed cutting were primarily ponderosas, 80 to 90 and maybe 100 years old.

Gottschall stood nearby as one crewman worked with a chainsaw and another used wedges and a long-handled axe to help set a dead giant up to fall safely. Gottschall pointed skyward at two woodpeckers abandoning a possible nest at the very top of the sickened ponderosa.

A deafening roar erupted when the old tree came down, shaking the hill where it came to rest.

Finigan estimated the tree was equal to 3,000 to 3,500 board-feet and weighed around 21,000 pounds — more than 10 tons — when it thundered to the ground.

Working together

Jerry Usrey with the Highway 108 FireSafe Council was among the volunteers helping make sure the tree removal work went safely Tuesday at the Schwartz place. Schwartz said he’s grateful for the assistance.

“It’s a privilege living in this community,” he said. “People who live here, it’s neighbor helping neighbor. You couldn’t ask for more. TMAP is doing an outstanding job for everyone around here.”

Gottschall said he and others with the Tree Mortality Aid Program hope to increase their funding from $125,000 to $150,000 in the next few months. Work at the Schwartz place was going to cost about $6,600 for taking out up to 11 dead and dying hazard trees.

“We’ve raised $125,000 so far, and we need a total of $150,000 to finish what he have signed up now,” Gottschall said. “Donations and grants have come from many sources. Kiwanis, Sonora Lions, Sunrise Rotary, Sonora Rotary, Twain Harte Soroptimist, Sonora Area Foundation started us out with a $20,000 grant, fundraisers, and a $75,000 grant from PG&E.”

For more information on eligibility and applications for the Tree Mortality Aid Program, contact Gottschall at or (209) 743-8123.

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