Horticulture is not all about growing things. If everyone was out planting trees, the World would eventually be overwhelmed with forest. It is sometimes necessary to cut trees down. There are several at work that we have been wanting to cut down for quite a while. Some are structurally deficient enough to eventually become hazardous, which is unacceptable in public spaces.
Even here among some of the oldest trees in the World, nothing last forever. Coast live oak, like that in the picture above, has potential to survive for centuries, but eventually succumbs to decay and disease. If fact, this particular specimen is doing it right now. If not cut down soon, it will eventually fall onto an adjacent building and a parking lot below. Its days are numbered.
Literally, it will be cut down on Monday morning, along with a few other coast live oaks and bay laurels in the neighborhood. The orange ‘X’ on the trunk is so faded from the delay of getting this done, that is it barely discernible. (Actually, the can of spray paint was empty.) The trunk and even the main limbs are so rotten that there will not be much firewood left to cut and split.
Cutting this tree down may seem to be unnatural, but so was pruning it for decades so that it would not fall down. It is impossible to say what situation this tree would be in now without past or present intervention. I am more concerned with how it and other trees interact with their surroundings, and the safety of everyone involved. We can not always let nature do as it pleases.
Forest fires are very natural components to our local ecosystems, but because so many of us live here, significant effort and resources are expended on containment!
The electricity is still on here at 8:20 p.m.. I just turned the lights off to get the cool picture above. The outages in this region were scheduled to begin twenty minutes ago, so the electricity could be disconnected here at any moment. I may not finish writing and scheduling this to post later at midnight before that happens. So, if you are not reading this presently, you know why.
Before you waste another second thinking about that, I will tell you now that it makes no sense.
Scheduled electrical outages are now one of the consequences of living in this excellent place. We live with trees. Some of these trees are the biggest in the World. Some are very combustible. Regardless of the diligence of those who prune trees to maintain clearance from utility cables, big trees are likely to drop limbs onto cables, causing sparks that can ignite combustible trees.
The electricity just went out at 8:40 p.m..
As I was saying, we also live with weather. It happens to be excellent weather. It is pleasantly warm through summer, with minimal humidity and an almost constant cooling breeze. When the weather gets a bit too warm, it compensates with lower humidity and increased breeze. Unfortunately, this combination of weather is precisely what accelerates the worst of forest fires.
Scheduled electrical outages are intended to coincide with forecasts of weather conditions that are dangerously conducive to the initiation and perpetuation of forest fires. As inconvenient as they are, such outages are a sensible precaution.
The smoke that made such a colorful sunset earlier is from a fire in nearby forests, on the southern coast of San Mateo County.
Now, I will go to town to see if I can find someplace to get online to schedule this for midnight.
Arborists see trees very differently from how most of us see them. They know their trees very intimately, and by botanical name. Arborists know how big particular trees get, both tall and wide, and if they are likely to develop structural deficiency or aggressive roots. They can tell us which are deciduous, which are evergreen, and which are messy with foliage, bloom or fruit.
Some arborists are happy to divulge a bit of history of some trees, whether exotic or native. They might tell us where the exotic trees came from, and why they were imported. Some trees were brought for timber. Some were brought for fuel. Some were imported just because they were pretty. Some naturalized, and now impose on the natural ecosystem. Natives try to adapt.
Since they know the innate characteristics of trees, arborists know what their cultural preferences are. They know that some are understory trees that prefer the company of other bigger trees. Many others are those bigger trees, that want to dominate their respective landscapes. Some want plenty of water. Many of the natives do not want much more than annual rainfall.
An arborist might provide you with way more information than you ever thought you wanted about your seemingly innocuous trees.
Besides all that, arborists are a weird breed that really enjoy their work. Arborists like me simply enjoy diagnosing problems with trees, and prescribing corrective arboricultural procedures. Those who climb trees to execute such procedures are much more involved! Their work is as demanding as extreme sports, and they take it very seriously. They must. It is their profession.
This view of a big box elder, Acer negundo, from above, which I got from the edge of a bridge, might be that of just another day at the office for other arborists.
Big trees get big problems. Part of our job is to tend to these problems before they become dangerous. Many of these problems are somewhat easy to identify. A deteriorating ponderosa pine with browning foliage it difficult to ignore if it is tall enough to be seen above the rest of the forest more than a mile away.
There are a few problems that are not so easy to identify. Some are caused by the weather, without prior warning. Others are hidden in the forests. One might think that those in the forests would not concern us. However, our landscape and facilities are so intricately mixed with the forests.
The shiner in the picture above was where a big broken limb needed to be cut from a big fir tree. It may not look big in the picture, but the limb was probably more than nine inches wide, and long enough to weigh a few hundred pounds. The lower right edge of the shiner is frayed because the limb broke right at the trunk, and was hanging vertically against the trunk.
The yellow arrow in the picture below indicates where the shiner is located. The trunk of the tree is not as tapered as it seems to be in the picture. It only looks like this because it is so tall that the the upper portion is very far from the camera! Although this fir is a wild forest tree, it is only a few feet from the cabin below. The broken limb was dangling directly over the roof!
There was no way to predict that this limb would break. It did not seem to be any more structurally deficient than those that remain. Of course, once broken, it was removed faster than I could get a picture of it.
Because redwoods live for centuries, their bark gets very thick. They do not shed their bark as they grow. Old giant redwoods in the Sierra Nevada have bark that is a few feet thick and thousands of years old. Their bark is thicker than the trunks of what most of us consider to be large trees! Even much younger coastal redwoods that have regenerated here since clear cut harvesting about a century ago have bark that is a few inches thick.
They like their bark thick. It is the insulation that protects them from forest fires that incinerate other vegetation. Unlike most species here that are designed to burn and then regenerate more vigorously after fire, redwoods prefer to survive fire by being less combustible. As they mature, and their bark gets thicker, they become more resilient to fire. There are only a few species here that survive fire mostly intact, rather than regenerate after it.
Of course, survival is more complicated than mere thick bark. Redwoods, particularly coastal redwoods, also try to exclude other more combustible species from their forests. Also, they tend to shed lower limbs that would be more combustible during a fire, and prioritize higher and therefore less combustible canopies. Redwoods have developed a rather ingenious (but unfortunately ecologically delicate) systems of survival techniques.
Other trees are not so easy to figure out. Many species of Eucalyptus shed lower growth as if they want to be less combustible. They shed copious amounts of foliage and bark to inhibit undergrowth and other combustible vegetation. However, not only are they innately very combustible, but because they shed so much of their bark, they lack insulation from fire. It is as if they expect to burn back to the ground, and then regenerate after a fire.
Regardless of their logic, exfoliating bark of the larger eucalypti can be annoyingly messy. Exfoliating bark of some of the smaller eucalypti can be rather appealing in home gardens. This tree happens to be the same featured last week in ‘Silver‘.
This is a formerly unplanned sequel to the article ‘Campground‘ from last Sunday. That article described my concern for any of the homeless who might camp on the banks of an adjacent creek, below innately unstable and structurally deficient riparian trees. Just a few minutes after the article posted at midnight, the biggest and most deteriorated box elder tree in the area of concern coincidentally fell! No one was there at the time to be hurt.
The tree that fell was located just a few yards to the right of those in the picture of the previous article. It happened to be the only tree that was inside the fence. Therefore, as it fell inward, it did not damage the fence. The trailer that it landed on is for heavy tractors, so was undamaged. Only the top few timbers of a pile of lumber that it landed on were broken, and only because the lumber was recently milled, and stacked so loosely to dry.
The upper picture at the top shows the fallen tree laying on the trailer and loosely stacked lumber, with its dislodged trunk suspended above the ground. The middle picture here shows the base of the dislodged trunk suspended pitiably above the ground, with no roots remaining attached to the soil.
The lower picture below shows how efficiently the trunk pulled out of the crater as if there were no roots holding it down. The few roots that were there were so decayed that none stayed attached to the soil. It is amazing that the tree did not fall earlier! When if fell, it sounded just like one might imagine it would, with a loud but quick crash. There was no sound of tearing or crunching roots. Fortunately, there was no one else there to hear it!
There happen to be quite a few campgrounds in the region, with one about a quarter of a mile upstream from where this picture was taken, and another less than three miles past that. Both are primarily used by school age children. The vast redwood forests with creeks flowing through are ideal for such campgrounds.
This is a campground too. I know it does not look like it. It is located between a creek and an industrial building, the eave of which is visible in the top right corner of the picture. The herd of dumpsters that is barely visible at the bottom of the picture might include a dozen dumpsters at at time. (I tried to get both the eave and the dumpsters in one picture.) There really are two rows of barbed wire on top of that fence behind the dumpsters.
Nonetheless, it is a campground. You see, individuals who lack adequate shelter occasionally camp on a flat spot next to the creek, right below the big cottonwood tree in the middle of the picture. It is not a big space, so can only accommodate one or maybe two people at a time. No one has been there for quite a while. Yet, on rainy days like today, it is saddening to imagine someone camping there, so close to inaccessible buildings.
Because the area is outside of landscaped areas, I do nothing to make it any more comfortable as a campground. I only cut away the limbs that fall onto the fence.
The trees are a mix of mostly box elders, with a few cottonwoods and willows, and even fewer alders, with one deteriorating old bigleaf maple. They concern me. Box elders, cottonwoods and willows are innately unstable. All but bigleaf maple are innately structurally deficient. Although bigleaf maple should innately be both stable and structurally sound, the particular specimen in this situation is in the process of rotting and collapsing.
I really do not mind if limbs or entire trees fall into the forested riparian zone. If they fall outward, they do not damage the dumpsters. Only the fence needs to be repaired. What worries me are the potential residents of the campground. Part of my work is to inspect trees for health, stability and structural integrity, and if necessary, prescribe arboricultural procedures to make them safe. I just can not do that here.
UPDATE: Just after this article posted at midnight, a very big box elder off to the right of those in the picture fell with a loud but quick crash. It was probably the biggest and most deteriorated of the box elders in this area, and pulled completely out of the ground to reveal that the roots were so decayed, that none stayed attached to the stump. Seriously, you should see the pictures when they get posted next Sunday.
Coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, are remarkable stable trees. They rarely fall, which is how they get to be thousands of years old. They prefer to live in groups, where they mesh their roots together, and shelter each other from wind. Those that live outside of a group stay shorter than forest trees, and typically develop multiple trunks that function as a group.
However, they are also remarkably weak in regard to their structural integrity. Limbs are easily broken away from their vertical trunks by wind. Snow, which is rare within their natural range, causes significantly more damage than wind, which is probably why their natural range does not extend into snowy climates. Trees with co-dominant leaders (double trunks that divide from single trunks above grade) have potential to split at the union of the double trunks. Such unions are typically at such acute angles, that the trunks press against each other rather than fuse together through impenetrable compressed bark.
Leaning redwoods such as these that were shown earlier this morning, are potentially hazardous, not because they are likely to fall over, but because they might be likely to break. The trunks are designed to support weight vertically. The asymmetrical distribution of weight supported by these two trunks exerts inordinate lateral tension on the trunks. To make matters worse, the trunk to the left is divided into two co-dominant leaders, although the union does not appear to be at a typically acute angle. (The lower trunk is now behaving more as a big limb than as a secondary trunk.)
I would guess that these two trees are genetically identical trunks from the same root system. Such seemingly pliable trunk structure is uncommon, and it is very unlikely that two such similar trees would just coincidentally appear within such minimal proximity to each other. Redwoods often develop multiple trunks from the same root system, particularly as they regenerate after harvest.
The good news is that these two trunks have survived like this long enough to develop ‘reaction’ wood, which is just like it sounds; a bit of extra wood to compensate for compression on the inside of the bend. Also, they are sheltered from wind by the other redwood in the forest around them.
If there were lawns and fences in this neighborhood, the grass would likely seem to be greener on the other side of the fence. In this situation, the greenhouse probably seemed to be more comfortable than being left out in the storm. This tall Douglas fir tree dropped in to find out. It did not go well. What remains can be seen in the middle of the picture above, just to the right of the fallen fir, and in the close up of the picture below.
Miraculously, the two coastal redwood trees that caught and guided the fir to a direct hit on the greenhouse also prevented it from destroying the associated house. Well, at least the redwood on the left did. There would have been less damage if the fir had fallen farther to the right. Regardless, a deck was crushed, an eave was destroyed, but the rear wall of the home was barely nudged. Not even the windows there were broken!
Falling debris punched a few holes in the roof, but without structural damage. The patio of the big building to the right was littered with debris that was easily removed. After limbs are removed from the damaged house, much of the carcass of the fallen fir will remain on the forest floor. It decays efficiently here.
Incidentally, this fir was about to be removed. It had been identified as too risky for the neighborhood. Although they are not visible in the pictures, there are a few other homes in the neighborhood. The cabin that I stayed in for more than a week is just beyond where the top of the fir landed. The stovepipe that is visible in the background of the second of my ‘Six on Saturday – Cabin Fever’ pictures from January 5 is the same stove pipe that is visible on the roof of the home that was nearly destroyed by the fallen fir. https://tonytomeo.com/2019/01/05/six-on-saturday-cabin-fever/
(The stove pipe circled by the yellow oval just above the center of the picture above is the same stove pipe circled by the yellow oval just right of the middle of the upper margin of the picture below.)
Fire has always been a part of life in most of California. That is why almost all native flora benefits from it, and has developed an efficient system and schedule for not only living with it, but exploiting it.
Within a few years after a fire, the pioneer species are the first to regenerate. They are aggressive, but short lived. Some are annuals. Others are trees that grow fast and then die out as the slower growing but longer lived trees dominate. Some of the longer lived trees might have been there all along, since they have developed ways of surviving fire.
Big valley oaks and coast live oaks that live out in the open away from other forest trees can survive for centuries because the grasses around them burn off fast and relatively harmlessly. Giant redwoods and some pines survive by standing high above the more combustible fuel below. Coastal redwood survives for centuries by being less combustible than other species. Desert fan palms protect their single terminal buds inside their massive non combustible trunks, while their beards of old dead foliage burns hot enough to incinerate competing species. There are too many ingenious ways that plants survive fire and even use it to their advantage to write about; but the point is that they know what they are doing, and they know how to live with fire.
This system of ecology has been disrupted, but not just by people cutting down too many trees and starting too many fires. The problem now is that not enough trees are getting cut down, and fires are unable to burn that which relies on burning.
In this region, pioneer species and an unnatural mix of forest trees moved in where the redwoods were harvested. This makes what had been less combustible redwood forest more combustible than it naturally is. It will take centuries for the redwoods to reclaim their territory and crowd out more of the hardwood trees. Also, because the redwoods regenerate with many trunks from each individual trunk that was harvested, even the redwoods are more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. While they are still relatively young, their foliar canopies are low and intermingled with the other more combustible trees. It is certainly not possible to cut down enough trees to repair the damage, but protecting too many of the wrong trees and outlawing selective harvest of second growth redwood only promotes combustibility of the local forests.
Other forests, whether formerly harvested or not, experience similar problems. Because they are not burning as frequently as they used to, they are not being regularly purged and restored, but are instead becoming more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. Diseases and pathogens are proliferating in the geriatric vegetation, and vegetation that succumbs provide more fuel, which also enhances combustibility.
Although there are many (MANY) more fires that are started by human activity now than there ever was naturally, such fires can not burn the vast areas that naturally occurring fires had naturally burned. There are just too many of us living and working here. Forests that are deprived of fire continue to proliferate more combustible biomass. Again, there is no remedy to this. Fires must be controlled and confined as much as possible.
Paradise is gone now. It burned on Thursday. Our region more than two hundred miles to the south is gray with abundant smoke from the Camp Fire that continues to burn there. Two other major fires burn in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, more than three hundred miles to the south of here. Paradise Park just to the south of here was protected from the much smaller Rincon Fire that filled the Valley with harsh smoke for days after it was contained. Sadly, for this region, this is all part of nature.
I do not remember on what days these pictures were taken. The first picture at the top was taken toward the sunrise, just prior to sunrise. The second picture above was taken later after noon, probably on the same day. The two pictures below were taken in the evening, perhaps on the day after.