Storms this month caused more tree damage in the capital region than local officials have seen in years, forcing cleanup efforts that continued under clear skies this week.
Conditions were ripe for tree damage leading up to the storms, with limbs deadened by years of drought and the ground saturated from heavy rain this winter. Then a series of storms blew in from the Pacific, and wind at Sacramento Executive Airport topped 30 miles per hour on nine days this month – something that had not happened in six years, according to the National Weather Service.
Trees and limbs covered Sacramento-area neighborhoods, blocking traffic, damaging homes and cars, and taking out power lines. Utility employees, city and county road crews and private tree companies have been working overtime to clean up the mess.
“I’ve been here for 25 years, and there’s only one storm that was comparable to this,” said John Ronkowski, senior highway maintenance manager for Sacramento County. He said the previous storm occurred roughly 20 years ago and required more than 400 service calls by the county’s road crews. The two storms that started Jan. 8 of this year required just under 500 calls to remove fallen trees and limbs, he said.
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The city of Sacramento responded to more than 600 tree-related calls. Those calls included 182 downed trees, the most in the past 10 years, said Marycon Razo, a city spokeswoman. The city responded to 155 downed trees on private property because the tree fell onto city rights of way. The rest of the trees the city dealt with were on city property.
The city expects to spend up to two more weeks cleaning up the tree damage, Razo said.
Some SMUD crews have worked 24-hour shifts taking care of trees and limbs that took out power service, said spokesman Jonathon Tudor. He said 70 percent of the storm-related outages in January, which affected 160,000 customers, were caused by trees.
He said it was the most tree damage encountered by SMUD since at least 2008.
While it’s not unusual for Sacramento to see strong wind gusts, the conditions leading up to the storms were not normal and helped cause the widespread tree damage, officials said.
Before this winter’s rain, Sacramento and the rest of the state had been in a drought for five years. This season, Sacramento has received about 19.4 inches of rainfall, roughly 215 percent of normal for this time of the rain season, according to the National Weather Service. The city has already reached its normal annual winter precipitation total, and it’s only late January.
The drought weakened root systems and deadened branches, said Alison Berry, a plant sciences professor at UC Davis. Then all the rain this winter made branches heavier and caused some of them to break off. Soil saturation was the biggest reason for downed trees, especially in urban areas where trees already have shallow root systems because they are used to getting water from sprinklers, she said.
The result has been dramatic, even for those accustomed to seeing downed trees.
“I’ve seen trees on houses and trees on cars, and I’ve seen very large branches on trees and cars,” said Scott Etherington, owner of California Tree Experts. “The wind just uprooted trees left and right.”
Etherington has been working in the tree business since he was a kid and said he hasn’t seen this kind of damage since the 1990s. He said he responded to a 100-foot pine tree that crashed down in Fair Oaks, destroying a fence and a neighbor’s car.
He said this week he can’t keep up with the requests for work and put in 15- to 20-hour days for five days in a row.
Warren Adcock, vice president of Tree Pros based in Southern California, said his company was called into the area by a local storm repair company because local tree companies couldn’t handle all the work. He said his crew has been working overtime since Saturday to keep up with demand. He was working on a fallen 90-foot tree that smashed a house near Del Paso Country Club.
Adcock urged people to use caution when approaching storm-damaged trees, saying they can easily topple in wet soil.
Sacramento Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this story.