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Forced to Take Out Old Friends

Felling damaged and dying trees in the mountains of the Southland is seen as a necessary -- and expensive -- step to protect the beloved landscape.

May 13, 2003|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

Frank Gorzny has spent much of the past half century amid the treetops in Idyllwild, braving the risky task of felling damaged and dangerous timber.

In all those years, the 84-year-old has never seen the forest so desolate as it is now, since a four-year drought and a bark beetle infestation wiped out swaths of pines across the mountains of Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Although he fought similar bark beetle epidemics as a U.S. Forest Service employee in the 1960s and 1970s, Gorzny said, "those were nowhere near as bad. This is worse by far."

The epidemic has struck 415,000 acres throughout Southern California, killing 20% to 100% of trees in the affected areas, officials said.

The stands of dead wood pose such a risk of catastrophic wildfires that, in March, Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of emergency in the three hardest-hit counties. And last month, Davis, along with state congressional leaders led by Rep. Mary Bono, asked the White House to help cover the estimated $430 million needed to remove the ravaged trees from local and federal lands.

"We are confronting an almost unprecedented -- perfect firestorm scenario," Davis wrote in his plea.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is also seeking $100 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help allay costs of tree removal to private property owners.

In the meantime, however, mountain dwellers must scrape together funds to remove dying trees from around their homes, an agonizing expenditure for many, since the price of fire safety involves, not only hefty fees, but also the loss of the landscape they love.

Idyllwild resident Vince Del Fante reluctantly removed several trees from his property and was heartbroken over recently losing another to beetles, a venerable and once-verdant Ponderosa pine.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "But we feel that, as property owners, we have to accept the responsibility for taking care of these things because of the high risk of fire."

Removal of a typical tree costs between $1,000 and $2,000 -- an unwelcome but affordable expense for most households, tree contractors and officials say.

But as bark beetles have swarmed from tree to tree, some property owners have lost a dozen or more trees on a lot.

"We visited one property up there in Idyllwild that had 50 trees that were all dead," said Robert Hewitt, district conservationists for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides emergency services. "That's $100,000. And I don't even know if the house was worth $100,000."

The price of tree removal is based on the difficulty and danger of the job.

A smaller tree standing in an open area might be taken down whole, but older, larger pines, and those on hillsides or near structures must be removed in segments by hand or by crane.

"You can't do the Paul Bunyan type of thing," Hewitt said. "We have power lines to worry about, cable lines and streets."

A climber scales the tree with spurs and harnesses, lops off the top of the tree and then cuts subsequent segments.

But the cuts must be calibrated precisely or the trunk may split, sway or topple beneath the climber.

On a recent weekday, Gorzny shimmied up a 100-foot tree at the home of his friends Don and Joyce Gilden. He hacked off the lower branches and then carved a notch at the base. In this case, the 26-inch-diameter tree was far enough from the home that Gorzny could fell it in one piece and avoid the garage.

He tied off a rope to an adjacent tree to control the fall and then drove a metal wedge into the cut. "This tree is doomed to die," he announced, then dropped the line. The towering pine slowly careened, then crashed to the ground, its branches cushioning the fall.

Gorzny attributes his 50 years of tree work without incident to his attention to safety. But for the former Golden Gloves boxing contender, who owns a fleet of nine Harley-Davidsons, the risk is part of the thrill. "If a slight breeze is blowing, you can feel the tree swaying," he said. "It's kind of exciting ... but always dangerous."

The danger is not just from tree removal, though, but also from the dead trees that remain. A wildfire this summer could wipe out whole communities, officials warn.

The problem grew out of a century of fire suppression that allowed Southern California's forests to grow two to 10 times as thick as their historical predecessors, said Richard Minnich, professor of earth sciences at UC Riverside.

And human dwellings mushroomed along with them. "What we've got are thickening forests and thickening structures," he said. "It's a nightmare. You can have a fire that burns through the trees, destroys the cabins and homes with it, and you're looking at damage to infrastructure in the billions" of dollars.

The urgency of preventing that disaster has tree contractors working around the clock in such communities as Idyllwild and Lake Arrowhead.

But it's a bittersweet boon.

Although the crisis has provided plentiful work, said Robert Horton, a licensed contractor and owner of Insured Tree Service in Lake Arrowhead, "it's like being a mortician during a war. Business is good, but ... at what cost."

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