On a quiet block in North Oakland's Fairview Park neighborhood, a four-man crew has assembled to trim Chinese elm trees, whose branches overhang the narrow roadway from both sides and nearly meet in the middle. The full canopy gives 63rd Street a stately, peaceful look. But it also poses a safety hazard; untrimmed, top-heavy trees are at risk of dropping limbs on cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians — or, worse yet, toppling during storms. These trees have been identified as high-priority targets; ignoring them for too much longer could result in property damage or personal injury, a liability the city can ill-afford.
Perched high in the basket of a cherry picker, one worker wields a buzzing chainsaw against limbs that extend perilously far from the tree's base, overhanging the street by as little as ten feet — four feet beyond the accepted maximum. Branches fall to the pavement below, where two more workers gather them and feed them into a wood chipper. A couple houses down, the crew's supervisor looks on from a white Public Works Agency pickup truck and gives word when it's time to move on to the next tree. Each one takes nearly thirty minutes to trim.
Some blocks in this verdant part of town have as many as two dozen full-grown trees apiece. Then there's the other nearly 38,000 street trees dispersed throughout Oakland's flats, another 200,000 in the hills, and untold thousands in the city's medians and one hundred parks, all of which fall under the purview of Oakland's Tree Services Division. These four workers represent almost a quarter of the department's total staffing, and they'll never catch up.
In one fell swoop in November 2008, the Tree Services Division shed 40 percent of its workforce — a reduction from 32 to 19 employees, including the loss of four drivers, four trimmers, and three supervisors. The deep budget cuts forced the department to curtail one of its most essential services: routine trimming and pruning, which help keep trees from becoming overgrown to the point that they require immediate attention.
Now, the city named for a native tree is forced to regard its arboreal citizens as hazards, tending only to those that pose a direct threat to public safety by blocking signs, buckling concrete, impeding emergency vehicles, or threatening to drop limbs or fall altogether.
At the same time, the tree services department's remaining employees have been pitted in a losing battle against the hundreds of thousands of trees growing in the public right of way. Particularly during the winter and early spring, when wind, rain, and saturated soil conspire to bring even healthy trees to the ground, crews shuttle from emergency to emergency, always putting out fires but rarely gaining any ground.
Full and untrimmed trees have a higher risk of falling over or losing limbs, and nature tends to take care of whatever maintenance we neglect — often with destructive results. Between trimming the Fairview Park trees over a number of days in mid-March, the same crew was diverted to clean up a massive fallen tree in the hills near Redwood Regional Park and remove an overgrown tree whose roots were rippling pavement outside a nearby North Oakland pool.
As maintenance needs compound across the city, the crews' inability to perform preventative maintenance may result in an environment where hazards are more the rule than the exception. "They look okay, but that's today," explained Parks and Building Services Manager Jim Ryugo. "Tomorrow, as they grow bigger and fuller and nothing is done to them, what's the future?"
This year, as spring turns to summer and early fall, Oakland's worsening problem of overgrown trees likely will contribute to increased fire dangers in the hills, as fuel accumulates in tree tops. Indeed, after a wetter than normal winter, trees in the thickly wooded hills could grow into a potential nightmare for firefighters during a year in which the city plans to honor the twentieth anniversary of those killed in the worst disaster in East Bay history — the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm.
Oakland's tree dangers are almost certain to get worse before they get better. Mayor Jean Quan is currently grappling with a $46 million projected budget deficit, and there's a chance that more cuts could make it even tougher for the Tree Services Division to fulfill its duties. In fact, Quan issued a tentative proposal last week to slash all city services by 15 percent, including public works. "We've done the hard, and we've done the really hard, and now we're at the horrific," said Sue Piper, spokeswoman for Quan. "Everything's on the table."
Despite its severity, the evolving tree maintenance problem can be difficult to visualize. That's because on a human scale, trees grow slowly, and problems develop over years, not days. Still, the general direction of current trends is crystal clear: Today's maintenance reductions are tomorrow's hazards. And the longer they're allowed to persist, the more expensive and time-consuming they become to fix — not to mention the more potentially threatening to public safety.
"Trees do need maintenance, just like your vehicle, just like yourself," explained Robert Zahn, a supervisor in the Tree Services Division and a certified arborist. Young trees in particular should be pruned for proper growth habits and structure and to ensure the crown doesn't become top-heavy, which can contribute to leaning and eventually toppling, he said. Critical early-life pruning can dictate the tree's entire future, helping to avoid major repairs down the line. But thanks to the budget cuts in 2008, the city can't afford it anymore.