It was a dark and stormy October night when Hurricane Sandy’s winds whipped through town late last year — carving a path of downed trees and power lines.
Many residents were huddled in their homes, hoping against doomed hope that the power would stay on or at the least that their generators were in good working order. But not Sam Partridge of Silver Hill Road. He was outside.
Wearing a hard hat and trying to stay in a safe area of his yard — he shone a flashlight on an ash tree that was dropping branches on his house, watching to see if it would fall.
The 40-year-old lifetime Easton resident was facing a storm unlike any he had experienced before.
Then he heard the loud crash of trees coming down on the other side of his house, and he ran to see what was going on.
“I saw trees snapping and breaking lines,” Mr. Partridge said of the scene he faced on the street in front of his house.
About 10 large white pines — a whole row — had come down and splayed cables with their branches across the road.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. Partridge said.
The lines were about four feet off the ground and covered by trees.
“I was afraid someone was going to drive by and cut their heads off,” Mr. Partridge said.
He managed to signal for his neighbor to come outside and keep an eye out for unsuspecting cars while Mr. Partridge ran inside his house and got some bright yellow caution tape.
“Me and my neighbor taped everything off,” Mr. Partridge said.
If the two had not done that, someone could have driven over the hill and not seen the wires, Mr. Partridge said.
“It was a very dangerous situation,” he said.
Silver Hill Road was not the only hazardous street in Easton that night. All over town, trees were taking out power lines, structures and one very brave life — Lt. Russell Neary, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.
“When a fireman gets killed from a tree falling down … it was shocking,” Mr. Partridge said.
But it was also conceivable given the conditions, he thought.
“I could see how it could happen,” Mr. Partridge said.
The trouble with trees
People move to Easton for its natural beauty, a part of which are the towering trees that frame the roads.
In a recent interview, Jeffrey Ward, chief scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, confessed his reason for moving to the state.
“I came to Connecticut 25 years ago because of the trees,” he said.
But as recent storms have taught us, there are also hazards associated with the area’s trees. And it is a problem without a simple snap-of-the-fingers solution.
Mr. Ward pointed out that before Tropical Storm Irene plowed through town last summer, there had not been any large storms since the 1980s.
Since then, trees have gotten older, taller and more rotted out, Mr. Ward said. And people had not been paying a lot of attention to the trees.
“There hadn’t been any big storms for a couple of decades,” Mr. Ward said. “And people had said, ‘Well, we don’t have to invest money in trees.’”
But now the weakening of the trees has contributed to more extreme storm damage — including loss of life, landscapes dramatically changed and extended periods without power — than back in the 1980s, Mr. Ward said.
People have begun to pay attention.
Mr. Ward said that the main decision to make is one of aesthetics versus practicality.
“Do we want to go without power every now and then or do we want to prune?” he said. “That’s the trade-off we have, the judgment we have to make.”
Trees do not stay standing forever, and residents should decide for themselves how to handle weaker trees.
“Trees are going to come down sooner or later,” Mr. Ward said. “Either we manage them or Mother Nature does. And Mother Nature has a dramatic hand.”
Mr. Ward said it is a good idea to have someone knowledgeable about trees look over your property and take care of trees that need help or removal.
But he also cautions that state law mandates that anyone you hire to do pruning or trimming or spraying must have an arborist license.
“In Connecticut, since 1922, state law has required you have an arborist license for tree work, including pruning,” Mr. Ward said.
Anyone you hire for any type of tree work should have insurance that specifies tree work, according to Mr. Ward. “Ask for [the arborist license] and liability and workman’s comp,” he said.
Removal of an entire tree does not require licensure, but Mr. Ward said that someone you hire to do that work should still be properly insured.
He said that any company that is operating reputably will be happy to give you any information you request.
“Ask for the phone number of their insurance company and give them a call,” Mr. Ward said.
He has hired friends to do work on his trees, but he asks even them, saying you never know if someone is going through hard times and has done some cost-saving corner-cutting.
“I’ve had beers with a guy, but I still check,” he said, reminding people that if there is a mishap and the person hired does not have the proper insurance, specifying tree work, the homeowner could have to take on the responsibility from damage or injury.
For more information on licensing, call Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection at 860-424-3000 and navigate to licensing and then arborist licensing.
When a tree takes a hit by weather but is still standing, Mr. Ward said, part of determining its future is counting how many branches it lost.
“If it loses 30% of its branches, that shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “More than 50%, its health is weakened.”
Another contributing factor to trees’ degrading is the use of herbicides, which Mr. Ward said can affect trees.
Also, the practice of using salt on the roads is an issue, especially for the trees just off the road — and often surrounding power lines.
He said that switching from sand to salt in recent years for the treatment of icy roads may be having an impact.
“It changes the soil structure,” Mr. Ward said. “There aren’t as many nutrients.”
He added that it can take several years for salt on the road to have an effect but that conifers are particularly vulnerable.
Plants being imported from other countries might have a secondhand effect on the health of trees.
They might be bringing travel companions with them that are damaging local vegetation and trees.
“Some might bring in insects, like the emerald ash borer,” he said. “They come in the packing materials.”
Ultimately, according to Mr. Ward, the long-term solution might be shorter and healthier trees.
”If you’ve lost a tree, plant trees which don’t get as tall,” he said. “Plant a 30- or 40-foot tree instead of an 80-foot pine.”
Mr. Partridge said that weaker trees that do not stand up as well to high winds include white pine, hemlock, spruce, and cedar.
“Anything that’s green in wintertime with needles is not deeply rooted,” he said. “They have weak roots and limbs that are brittle.”
Heartier trees that can take high winds include maple, oak, hickory, and ash, according to Mr. Partridge.
But he cautions that it depends on the time of year a storm sweeps through town, and even a hearty and healthy tree can be vulnerable in the right conditions.
“A couple of years ago, I had a healthy ash tree, and one gust of wind knocked it down,” he said. “So you never know.”
That tree, however, was on its own in a large and empty field, so it had nothing to shield it.
The best prevention, according to both men, is an awareness of the trees on your property.
If you have hardwood trees that storms have taken out, you can do what Mr. Partridge does and use that wood to help heat your home.
“Recycling trees is good exercise and therapeutic,” Mr. Partridge said.
He spends a good deal of time cutting up fallen trees for heat.
He started learning to heat his home with woodstoves as a hobby and now has two woodstoves in his home and one in his shop.
The only heating fuel his property uses is for the hot water heater.
“Every time we have these storms, the town cuts up trees and leaves them on the side of the road,” he said. “I pick them up, take them home and burn them.”
Mr. Partridge has an advantage over the average resident. Because of his business, Silver Hill Services, which does excavation and construction, he has heavy machinery that he can load the wood onto to bring home.
“I was told that anything within 10 feet of the road, anyone can take it,” Mr. Partridge said of abandoned tree bits.
Still, he is careful not to take wood that might belong to someone else. He feels he is contributing to not only the beauty of the town by cleaning things up but also its coffers.
“It saves the town money,” he said.
And that might come in handy with the amount of tree work that still needs to be done — what with all the remaining cleanup and prevention left to do.
Mr. Ward said that town and state budgets are tight, and to get the right amount of tree work done, taxpayers might have to contribute.
“Taxpayers will have to take some of the hit,” Mr. Ward said.
Easton’s Department of Public Works did not need a wake-up call about trimming trees. It has always worked to trim trees on town property, according to Ed Nagy, the department’s director.
“We take care of hazardous town trees,” Mr. Nagy said.
“We’re pretty active on our trees,” Mr. Nagy said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
And in order to do their part, homeowners need to start looking up more and noticing the state of the trees on their properties.
According to Mr. Nagy, most of the trees causing damage and outages in recent storms did not fall from town property.
“The majority of trees were owned by residents,” Mr. Nagy said.