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A Homeowner's Account of Trees,
Climbers, Insurance and Neighbors

tree logs hero picture

(BenQQ 7.2.19) Now, after seeing damage from storms and dead trees firsthand for years, I thought I’d share some experience. Such experience ranges from those tree services who dropped limbs on the roof to skilled climbers taking down a huge monster that could at anytime fall on a house.

picture of split tree

When the right side of an old split sycamore (above), with roots spreading over a deep spring, finally let go 8 years ago, the ground shaking impact brought down electric feeds and poles and barely missed the house. Instantly the cats shot back into a bedroom window from their outdoor “catatorium” I had built for them near where the old tree fell. I myself thought a plane had dropped on the house.

The only reason that I did not hear the usual warning crack of wood giving away was that that wood had turned to wet black mush in the split where it supported the massive trunk. This was the part that had grown almost over my house. (Split trunks, I learned from cutters, are apt to go sooner than single ones growing straight and of course not at an angle.) Also tree killing vines had covered the bark (inset). That late night, with the rain that weighed down the split still pouring, a Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW) team of 7 workers moved in heavy machinery up the incline of a muddy drive to replace the pole, wires and lines. By early morning power was back on.

Even though I had often heard huge trees eerily caving late at night somewhere in the woods, that tree fall convinced me everybody who lives within reach of tree limbs, let alone trunks, should have a personal “tree policy.” Here's my personal public service announcement: trees are going to fall. Plan for it.

The Next One

The roar of wind, the pounding rain and smell of electricity in the air are exciting to me. Perhaps that’s because I lived in LA where the weather was, more or less, boringly perfect. Except for the dry hot that blew in off the dessert in fall, you rarely had a big weather event unless you consider fires and earthquakes as such. Since I returned to the belly of the South, I rediscovered "tree weather" can be gyrating wind or simply a constant soaking rain that loosens roots. Either way, things happen. (picture below).

tree on roof picture

So I was standing on my front porch enjoying the big wind of 2017. I heard the crack of a heavy limb somewhere in the woods. Under the loud wind roar, I didn’t think much about it. I walked the grounds a couple of days later. A huge tree, located about a hundred feet on another property, had been twisted away to land on a small brick house in the far end of my two acres. The little brick house had withstood many a violent wind since 1938 but it couldn’t survive the tonnage of a heavy tree hammer that happended to catch it just right. So much for my planned office.

A climber who was also an arborist surmised from the big bulge on its trunk that it was diseased as well. In Tennessee diseased trees can be a legal liability but no laws specifically address trees. A state judge ruled in one case that the property owner was liable for damages when a diseased tree damaged his neighbors property. Otherwise, “acts of God” get a pass.

I found out an unresourced nonprofit owned the wooded property from which that tree was thrown onto the house. Because tree mishaps are not a sure kill like traffic accidents, as well as the lack of funds of the possible defendant, no lawyer wanted to get involved. (Another distinction between LA and Memphis). Attorneys said tree suits were already iffy and legal expenses on this one would far exceed the value of the damaged property. Further I knew it was a roll of the dice on how a judge would rule (unless you think judges are always perfectly rational). I dropped it.

Insurance wasn’t a complete solution either.  Erie Insurance, balked at paying what the adjuster said he would pay after he assessed the damage. (This is a sub-story to my tree sagas. Erie finally acquiesced to the policy after I contacted the Tennessee State Insurance Commission.)

Since then, a half dozen other big tree issues have emerged on and around my property. These don’t make me an expert but I learned something new with each tree “operation” about qualifications, pricing, insurance, cuttintechnique and even neighbors.


The company Tree Climber took down a tree leaning over my studio. A few feet away
a dead tree could reach the building as well. The owner of this wooded
area permitted cutting of both trees, one growing two feet from the
wall and a few feet further, a dead tree (far right box) that could easily reach the wall
with a wind gust. I paid for both cuts, even though there was a chance the property
owner could have been liable for property damage from the dead tree .

Located on the opposite side of the property equidistant—and equi-dangerous—between my neighbor’s and my house were two thick, tall dead oak trees. Cutters said they had been hit by lightning that hopped from one to the other. I only noticed they were dead when they did not blossom in the spring of last year.

I wanted the biggest tree down first because that was the one I worried about the most. No company would do that. They all sited the danger of the smaller tree catching the falling limbs. That would make it harder and more dangerous to take the smaller one down.  

While thriving healthfully next to a new spring that had surfaced two years before (they're all over my area), they went from pulling up thousands of pounds of water every month to tall dead monoliths dropping heavy long branches. The issue: there was about a 60% chance the tall massive trunks in time would crash into either adjacent house.  I was nervous with every wind or rain.

John Boatman at 50 had lifetime expereince as a climber and owner of his own company, Boatman Tree Services. Boatman and crew took down the smaller tree in one day. His work was assured and paced. By comparison, the climbers of the second (harder and larger) tree felt more like a high risk slog. (In the pictures below, Boatman cuts the tree to a length that couldn't fall on either wall.)


However, few companies would take down the bigger tree by climbing. I agreed with them. I just couldn't see a single climber first even getting up the thing. (One company rep was reticent because he said the dry bark would not hold a climber.) "There's nothing for him to grab onto," he said. So I got quotes for one of those large cranes to get the job done. With quotes as high as $6,000, a tree company got a crane with operator at half that, but soon three deal killing issues popped up.

First, a crane would have to maneuver past a narrow gate, up my drive and then inch out onto soft ground on (second issue) an incline. I thought the machine could possibly get up my drive. I had seen MLGW heroically enough manage it in a storm. However, it would have to position on a downward slope. Not so good for a top heavy machine shifting its multi-ton weight around with a heavy long arm. Its one thing on a flat hard street surface but another where it could get stuck or worse. I imagined it falling over.

So, the crane operator suggested access through my neighbor’s yard to a point next to her house where the machine could work. Then we hit the third issue: no way she objected. The machine could damage her newly landscaped lawn, possibly as well underground water pipes. So I had to opt for climbers taking down the larger dead tree. It would be a hair raising experience—at least if the circus makes you nevous. (video below.

Climbers

Over the years, I've worked with several tree climbers on property. For deadly obvious reasons, a climber should have years of real experience. I think of them as “tree walkers.” Its one of the few jobs where a mistake could end your life. On the other hand, you get to climb trees, swing around and view the world with the birds. A job with boyhood roots. But, regardless that, trees will surprise you. Once a limb is cut, you have no control over the fall. That's why climbers need to know how to tie off limbs to control it.

Most climbers applying to my two dead tree jobs above said they had learned to rope and cut limbs as a kind of apprentice on the job. One said he had come from a family of tree climbers, with skills passed down from father to son. (By the way, I never met any female climbers in my tree experiences but many businesses had women reps.)

The owner of the company who got the larger tree job, David Glass, decided the climb was too risky even for him. He brought in two highly experienced climbers, each working on a separate day due to scheduling. On the third day limbs finally started falling, but not before what was to me a heart stopping climb on what we called the "worst limb." It even made the ground crew nervous. For about 3 hours the climber made his way up this first and most dangerous limb. (See video below). From the ground, the limb looked brittle and weak. I thought of one about the same size that had broken off from that very tree several months earlier.

 

He inched himself upward with dangling saw. The further he went, the thinner the limb got. About half way up, I heard a distinct crack, the sound of dry weak wood in the process of breaking. If that limb broke away, he would fall about four stories and land on limbs from the previous cut tree. If it broke and dangled, he'd have to climb back at an angle or maybe even impossibly straight up. In addition, he had wrapped his safety line around the dry dead limb that was bearing his weight. Why in God's name didn't he tie it around the trunk or over another limb above I'm thinking. Every minute until he made the first cut, I kept replaying the scene of Slim Pickens, a former Memphis resident I heard, riding The Bomb down like a rodeo rider in Dr. Strangelove.

I finally pulled rank on the supervising owner and Climber One reluctantly agreed not to crawl further out on the dead limb. He tied off the first cut that a worker far down on the ground pulled as it fell so it wouldn't hit my neibhbor's house. I was relieved when he finally cut the end of the worst limb, lifting its weight. Just getting that limb down took almost half a day. The most dangerous limb over my neighbor’s house had been removed. As it turned out, Climber One had been right about it holding him, but it sure looked different from the ground. The last cut of that limb, its thickest part, knifed semi-perpendicular into the soft ground. (video)

Climber One was unable to show up the next day. So Climber Two was called in. He made rapid progress until a heavy storm of rain and wind stopped him on the last and largest cut (top picture). That cut would have eliminated the reach of the trunk reaching the houses. So, as of this writing, the tree can still reach the houses it stands between. The battle is not over. It will go down.

picture uprooted tree
Finally, you don't have to run out and cut down every leaning tree, but this uprooted tree arched
progressively with every large rain. it finally gave way.

So here are the things I now require all respondents (on any job) to provide if I do not already know them:

*Proof of insurance via their (not thru Craigslist or wherever you advertised the job) own email. It must be from their real email server, not Craigslist, Yahoo or G-mail. It also must bear an official insurance company letterhead and contact phone number. Look the insurance company up on the internet and call. Then verify on the state insurance commission web site. Ignore these at your own peril. Insured businesses will have them ready on first contact.
*Email you their business card and driver’s license.
*Tree companies compete for jobs with each other. So get bids. You don’t have to go with the biggest ticket even when it requires heavy equipment.
*Tree companies should have a web site. I also give additional points of video of their doing actual jobs. More points if they have a how-to video on Youtube.
*Finally, some companies have credentialed arborists. Great for spotting diseased trees that will be a problem in the future.

All tree companies big and small say they can do the job right and quick. Some trees, like the big one next to my house, are just too much for all but the most experienced, skilled and equipped. Bottom line: give everybody a shot, but make sure you’re
covered.

xxx