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For tree trimmers, making cuts is a sign of a healthy business

Dennis Webb

With fire officials urging homeowners to create defensible spaces around their homes, those in the tree maintenance business would seem well-poised to profit handsomely off the pruning push.

But at least two local operators say they are taking a conservative approach to thinning foliage.

Scott Daniels, owner of High Rise Tree Care Service, said unlike some, he’s urging homeowners to proceed cautiously. He fears that a certain amount of hysteria is occurring regarding home protection measures.

“They need to address it, but they don’t have to go crazy about it,” he said.

Daniels said in some cases, people want more done than is necessary. Likewise, he said, some companies will oblige them, and charge far more than necessary to create a reasonable defensible space.

“There’s a point where somebody’s taking advantage of a bad situation,” said Daniels.

Charlie Sudick, owner of Elemental Touch, another local tree maintenance company, also advises homeowners against acting rashly.

“I don’t cut trees down unless there’s absolutely no alternative,” he said. “Our best defense is not an extreme offense, it’s just using good common sense.”

Ron Biggers, a fire protection analyst for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, preaches the importance of defensible space and the means of creating it. But even he tells homeowners it’s better to thin things out only moderately, at least at first.

“I tell ’em it’s like a haircut. If you leave it a little long, you can always take more off, but if you go too heavy, it takes a little while to grow back,” he said.

Biggers said he’s not aware of any companies taking improper advantage of this summer’s wildfire fears.

The state Attorney General’s Office has received no complaints about scams related to this summer’s fires in Colorado, but is warning the public to beware of possible frauds, including those also related to disaster relief and charity fund-raising efforts, fraudulent construction, home repair offers or loan schemes.

Randy Welch, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also hasn’t heard of any abuses. But he said it wouldn’t surprise him to see them cropping up.

Welch said it’s not uncommon to see such abuses after floods. Some fly-by-night operations will say they need a down payment to schedule the work, then never show up, he said.

Daniels said he had one recent case where he gave a $1,000 estimate on a defensible space job, and another company gave a $20,000 estimate.

He said he’s seen companies recommending extreme measures such as cutting down all trees within 50 feet of a house and placing sprinklers on roofs.

“You paid a lot of money for those trees, and the environment and (living in) Colorado. For people to say `Hey, you need to make it look like Kansas’ isn’t what you want,” he said.

In truth, much of the work to create defensible zones can be done by residents themselves, said Daniels. This can involve clearing low-lying brush that can transport a ground fire into the crowns of trees.

Daniels said the goal is to strike some balance between making a home safer from wildfire and not ruining the landscaping.

It’s impossible to entirely prevent a fire from reaching a home, he said. The aim should be to give a family time to get out, and give firefighters a chance to protect it.

Sudick recommends placing a sprinkler system that can wet trees and shrubs near the home, so they doesn’t have to be cut down. The system should be made of steel pipes, not plastic ones that can melt, he said, and easily turned on if a fire threatens.

Irrigating trees is important in general, not only to reduce fire risk but also to keep the trees healthy, he said.

If water restrictions are in place, he said, it may make more sense to water the trees than the lawn. The lawn comes back next year; the trees can take many years to grow back if they die. And losing trees is a big loss, he said.

“They’re a natural resource for us that supplies so many things – beauty, shade, enjoyment.”

He said some people who call him want everything cut down.

“I usually am real particular about not removing as much as they’d like me to. I’m not in the tree business to cut trees down, I’m in the tree business to keep trees healthy, and those we have to cut down, we cut down.”

Biggers said more people are sensitive about losing landscaping. He respects such hesitation, and as a result generally recommends less thinning than he might consider to be ideal.

“I understand people get a little bit antsy when you’re putting too many ribbons on trees,” he said.

The point of flagging trees is to give homeowners a preview of the thinning, and a chance to save trees before the deed is done, he said.

Lucas Lizotte, co-owner of Colorado Sawyers in Basalt, has seen the same kind of hesitation among homeowners. Lizotte and his partner, Scott Engel, sometimes find themselves working to persuade residents to take out more vegetation than they would prefer.

If Colorado Sawyers’ advice is a little more aggressive than that of some other local companies, it’s because Lizotte was a firefighter in Basalt, Engel served on departments in Durango and Snowmass, and both have fought wildfires.

“When we look at a property, we can … explain what should go and what can stay and what burns and what is more fire-resistant,” Lizotte said.

Part of the advice they give originates from the Colorado State Forest Service. Funding assistance for thinning vegetation is available to homeowners and landowners, but State Forest Service guidelines must be followed in order to obtain it.

Said Sudick, “I would say a defensive zone is as much as we’re comfortable risking as far as the beauty surrounding us. How much of the beauty around us do we want to cut down before we’re satisfied our homes are safe? I think it’s a personal call. I don’t think it’s a governmental call.”

Biggers said the State Forest Service isn’t asking people to clearcut.

For example, oak brush, which can be highly flammable, can be maintained in clumps, with space between them to impede a fire’s progress. “It keeps your privacy but it gives you a little more protection,” said Biggers.

Other vegetation may be of less concern, such as well-watered aspen trees, which are less likely to burn.

Biggers said he knows of a subdivision in southern Colorado where lots went for more money after thinning, because they were cleaned up and the buyers didn’t have to worry about doing the work.

He said people who live in the forests must be stewards of their wooded properties. “Homeowners need to do what fire or bugs would do” to keep the woods healthy and thinned out, he said.

Failing to do so makes it likely firefighters won’t try to save those homes, but move on to houses where efforts are better spent, said Biggers.

“Why should we put ourselves at risk, and our equipment at risk, if the homeowner doesn’t show an interest in having the property saved?” he asked.

Lizotte said the worth of defensible space was proven in the recent Panorama fire in Missouri Heights. The fire burned to within 15 feet of some homes, but mitigation efforts saved them.

He said his company has been “pretty busy ever since Coal Seam,” the fire that hit Glenwood Springs June 8, burning 29 homes.

Both Sudick and Daniels said business has picked up this summer, but not tremendously so. FEMA’s Welch said that surprises him, and he hopes it doesn’t mean residents are avoiding getting needed work done.

Even if business isn’t booming, Biggers and area tree pruners agreed there aren’t many companies locally doing defensible zone work. As a result, Daniels advises those who anxiously call, wanting their yard thinned immediately, to be prepared to wait and perhaps do some of the work themselves.

Some of the work can wait, and a lot of it involves maintenance that must be ongoing, he said.


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