Work should begin within a matter of days to remove as many as 300 dead trees from the Ponderosa Hills subdivision near Tuolumne, where two residents say trees have fallen on their homes in the past year.
The Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services awarded a $117,000 contract to Ace Tree Service last week for removing the dead trees from the subdivision that contains roughly 250 homes and another 150 undeveloped lots.
This will be the seventh project the county has undertaken specifically to remove dead trees threatening private property since receiving $2.4 million in grants from Cal Fire in early 2017. Previous grants paid only for the removal of trees threatening roads and other public infrastructure.
Some who live in the Ponderosa Hills area say the aid is long overdue.
“These trees are falling and have reached a point where they are going to fall,” said Gary Walter, 76, who owns a three-story house on Ponderosa Way that was almost flattened by two dead pines last Friday night.
Walter was in Santa Cruz taking care of the home of his recently deceased mother when a friend called him to tell him the two trees had come down onto his property sometime between 7 and 8 p.m.
Both of the trees appeared to be over 60 feet tall, with one larger than the other. One of the trees clipped and damaged Walter’s wooden deck. He said earlier this week that he was waiting for insurance adjusters to assess the rest of the damage and remove the trees.
Prior to the incident, Walter said he talked to officials at the county about the ever-increasing danger he and his neighbors are facing the longer that the dead trees remain standing.
“It’s a danger to our families, to our homes, to our livelihood, to our very existence,” Walter said.
Greg and Jane Garrison, who live near Walter in a single-story house, survived two close calls when trees fell onto their home during storms in November and March.
The couple had just gone to bed during a heavy storm in November when two dead ponderosa pines between 90 and 120 feet tall fell on top of their house, crushing their roof and knocking out the power.
“It sounded like a clap of thunder was right on top of us,” Greg Garrison said. “One tree literally fell like four feet from the head of our bed.”
He said the trees caused about $40,000 in damage, mostly to the roof, which was covered by their insurance company. They paid a contractor about $8,000 to remove eight dead trees immediately around the house following the incident.
During a heavy storm in March, the couple was watching television in their family room when another tree on their neighbor’s property came down on the roof directly above their heads.
“If the tree had been bigger on that second one, it would have been bad for me and my wife,” Greg Garrison said. “My wife wouldn’t sit in the family room for awhile after that. She’s still freaked out.”
There are still at least three dead trees that are close enough to fall onto the couple’s house, said to Greg Garrison, who serves as vice president of the Ponderosa Hills Recreation Club homeowners association.
Greg Garrison said he spoke to several people at the county between the incident in November and March and was told repeatedly that they were working on a project in Ponderosa Hills.
He’s heard of other dead trees in the neighborhood falling, but his and Walter’s are the only homes that he knows of that have been damaged.
All of the trees that fell on the homes in Ponderosa Hills were killed in the past three years by bark beetles, a statewide epidemic that was exacerbated by the recording-breaking drought from 2011 to 2016.
More than 130 million trees are estimated to have died in California since 2010, including roughly 7 million in Tuolumne County.
While the trees that damaged the Garrisons’ home fell during heavy storms both times, the two that damaged Walter’s home fell on a dry, warm, nearly windless day.
Ryan Campbell, administrative analyst for the county OES office, said it’s rare for trees to suddenly come down on their own without an impact from weather, such as wind, rain, or snow, but trees that have been dead for two to three years pose a greater threat and are tricker to remove.
“The longer the trees stand, the higher the hazard becomes,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to safely take down a tree that has died recently, whether it’s climbing it or using a crane or bucket truck, but there are fewer options the longer it’s been dead, because it’s no longer safe to climb.”
Campbell said the county has spent the past three weeks in Ponderosa Hills marking trees for removal, and he anticipates contractors will start removing them by Monday.
The county felled 62 trees in Ponderosa Hills last year with money from the state that could only be used to remove dead trees threatening roads and other public infrastructure, as opposed to homes.
Trees on private property, whether dead or alive, ultimately belong to and are the responsibility of the property owner, but many are unable to afford the thousands of dollars it can cost to remove just a single tree.
Cal Fire gave the county $2.4 million in grants last year that can be used to remove trees on private property threatening homes with the owner’s permission.
The county was required to split the work into specific zones, because the grants had to be applied for in $200,000 increments, but Ponderosa Hills was initially not approved by Cal Fire for funding.
Campbell said the subdivision was eventually approved after a lengthy process to amend the grant.
The subdivision was declared a high-priority area earlier this year due to the severity of the problem, and the county began sending out right-of-entry permits at the end of February. About 75 percent of the permits sent to a given area must be signed by the property owner and received by county staff before work can begin.
“It’s probably one of the most challenging areas we’ve been in because of the number of dead trees, fire danger, proximity of the houses to each other, and lack of access points,” Campbell said.
The county has conducted more than 30 projects that have removed a combined total of 5,620 trees since July 2016 as part of its program to combat the risks of tree mortality, according to data provided by Campbell.
The total cost of the program topped $3 million as of this month, much of which has come from the state grants.
Campbell said the county has recently begun using some of the funding its received to remove logs and debris from people’s yards.
Those with logs and other debris from dead trees on their property are encouraged to fill out a right-of-entry permit that can be completed online through the county’s website at https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/1089/Online-ROE-Registration .
“That allows the county on their property and assess whether they qualify for removal under the county program and also to see if there are any dead trees on their property,” Campbell said.
Contact Campbell for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org , or (209)-533-6394.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.