Fallen trees increasingly used as mulch, firewood and furniture
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Fallen trees increasingly used as mulch, firewood and furniture

If you’ve spent a summer in Tucson you’re likely familiar with the sight.

Monsoon storm clouds roll in, blast a section of town, and leave a trail of carnage including giant trees lying in yards, sometimes on top of homes and cars with their roots exposed for all to see.

The cleanup triggers a flurry of activity for homeowners, businesses, insurance companies and even furniture makers and amateur woodworkers.

Bryan Jackson, the owner of Finest Tree Service in Tucson, said he has been swamped – no pun intended – this summer with the business of picking up trees that have been knocked down by storms. Some of his cleanup last week was in the Winterhaven neighborhood near Fort Lowell Road and Country Club Road, which was pounded by a so-called “microburst” on June 27, leaving a trail of decades-old trees on the ground. Jackson had one customer in the neighborhood with three large trees that had to be removed.

It’s never fun and it can be costly for a homeowner, especially if insurance doesn’t cover the damage, which can be the case if no other damage occurs other than the downed tree.

“Nine times out of 10, if a tree falls over, it hits something and causes damage,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen some customers that have had trees fall over and (their insurance company) covered the tree and put in new trees. But I’ve seen other companies refuse the work if it hasn’t done damage to the house or a car.”

If a tree falls on a house, a car, or damages something else on the property, insurance deductibles of $500 to $1,000 or more generally come into play. Without insurance coverage, Jackson said, cleaning up a downed tree can cost an average of $750.

What happens next varies from community to community.

In Tucson, when a tree goes down, someone – most likely a tree service – is hired to clean up the mess and take the damaged tree away. An insurance adjuster might make a visit to assess the damage and determine if there’s coverage for the resident. A car, a roof or a wall might have to be fixed.

The tree itself has its own destiny.

Locally, Jackson said, most damaged trees are chipped and turned to mulch or they become firewood. He said he keeps the larger trees to sell as firewood, taking them to his yard where he lets them dry out for a year or so before selling. If he chips the wood into mulch, he delivers it for free to a number of groups he partners with who can use it.

The city of Tucson Transportation and Parks and Recreation departments generally mulch the wood when tree damage occurs on their property and rights of way, officials from both departments said.

Mulch is helpful in the parks and other landscaped properties, said city Transportation Administrator Jorge Riveros. It can be used for ground cover in the landfill.

But there’s actually an emerging business in Southern California, where at least one firewood company has established a milling operation to turn some of the wood that would otherwise become mulch and firewood into usable lumber and slabs for furniture and other purposes.

“In Southern California, just about every variety of tree grows just because of our climate,” said Tom Rogers, who established Woodhill Firewood in Irvine, California, 46 years ago. “We have a lot of exotic trees.”

Rogers said his business in California grew almost out of necessity when California environmental regulations started prohibiting the installation of wood-burning fireplaces in new construction in 2009. He has a partnership with a large tree service that has operations all over Southern California to collect all of the logs and trees the service removes.

“I go through every tree to sort for firewood and lumber,” Rogers said. “We have two sawmills that will cut dimensional lumber or slabs up to 24 inches in diameter. We have a big chainsaw with a five-foot bar that will cut slabs out of real big trees. We started that about five years ago, and that has grown into a really good business. We do make some tables ourselves, but mostly we sell the slabs to people who want to build bar tops or tables.”

Locally, Jackson isn’t aware of anyone making a business out of making usable lumber from downed trees. But he knows a number of local amateur woodworkers who sometimes come along and take some of the usable wood he removes and make it into furniture and other items as a hobby.

“I have several customers that buy wood from us for just that,” Jackson said. “They make anything from cutting boards to old wooden pails. They use it for making furniture. I have a guy around the corner from my yard who uses pine to carve wood. He makes bears and eagles and all kinds of stuff.”

And while Jackson’s business is flourishing with this summer’s storms, he offers a wide range of advice on how to keep from having to call him or another tree service to reclaim your yard from a downed tree. The premise is relatively simple, he said – take care of the tree with proper watering and trimming before the storm hits.

He said it’s common for irrigation systems to be incorrectly installed right next to a tree when the proper way to water it is to water the entire area under the canopy of the tree.

“Honestly, they fall over because they’ve been improperly watered,” Jackson said. “They put a drip line right up to the tree and the trees don’t establish a substantial root system. When you see these trees blown over, you say, ‘Wow, these trees don’t have a very big root system.’ You need to water on the drip line of the tree, about 10 feet out from the trunk.”

One of the more problem species locally, Jackson said, are mesquite trees that have a “shallow” root system often coupled with large canopies, which makes them susceptible to being blown over by high winds.

Aside from watering correctly, proper thinning of a tree can keep the winds from a microburst from essentially grabbing onto it and lifting it out of the ground, Jackson said.

“It’s not a guarantee, but I’ve never had a tree that I trimmed fall over in a microburst,” he said. “A tree is a nice investment for your house. It makes your house look nice. I would suggest to people if they like their tree and their house, that they keep maintenance on their tree just like they change the oil on their car or go to the dentist. A tree needs work at least every couple of years.”

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