It’s been a rough couple weeks for the City of Trees. As a series of back-to-back atmospheric rivers bring heavy rains and high winds to Sacramento, residents have seen hundreds of trees collapse, at times crushing cars and homes.
“I've been here 32 years and I've never experienced that,” said Dan Pskowski, an arborist who worked with the City of Sacramento for 29 years before retiring in 2020.
By the city’s estimates, around 1,000 trees have fallen since New Years’ Eve. The city’s arborists and other teams of urban foresters reported more requests for help related to fallen trees in a day than they’d typically see in a month. In a statement, a city spokesperson said that they likely won’t know the full extent of the damage brought on by this rash of storms until a few weeks after they pass.
In the meanwhile, residents have wondered what to do next to protect themselves from damage caused by fallen trees. CapRadio talked to experts about why so many trees have fallen, and what can be done to prepare for the next storm.
Has this happened before?
Atmospheric river storms aren’t new to California and are, historically, a natural part of its weather during the colder months of the year. However, having multiple storms in a row paired with intense precipitation and high winds has made for more uncommon consequences.
In a statement, city spokesperson Gabby Miller described the storm as “abnormally severe,” and said the city hasn’t seen one of this intensity in at least five years. She added that damage caused by the storm is greater than previous storms in recent years.
Pskowski said he had witnessed occasional storms with similar severity during his time as an arborist for the city, but seeing back-to-back storms was new for him.
“Usually, after the storm, you get some time to start cleaning stuff up,” he said.
Why did so many trees fall over? Was it because of lacking management, age, root rot, or something else?
Although some trees may be more vulnerable to falling over in a storm than others, frequent storms of this magnitude can threaten any tree. Paula Peper, a retired urban ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said that she’s noticed toppled trees in all kinds of conditions around the city.
“This was an incredible storm and once [the trees] get to a certain size, with the winds that we've had, it's going to happen,” Peper said. “You're going to lose trees.”
After weeks of continuous rain, soil in the area has become saturated with water. When the soil is completely saturated, it becomes more difficult for a tree to hold itself in place amid high winds. During a peak in the storm, monitors at the Sacramento International Airport reported winds gusts up to 72 mph. Pskowski said it’s a huge jump up from typical wind speeds that trees experience in the area.
“The tree's anchored in the ground,” he said. “But the force of the wind is so great they can't hold it, and so the tree just uproots.”
He said he’s seen some toppled trees where the entire root plate was pulled up, while high winds caused others trees’ roots to snap as they fell.
Peper said root rot and lack of maintenance can add to a tree’s vulnerability. But other less controllable aspects can make a tree more susceptible to toppling as well: Large trees with a lot of foliage can catch more wind, and drought conditions may stress trees and hurt their health as well.
According to a statement from the City of Sacramento, there hasn’t been a clear pattern in the type or condition of the trees that have fallen over.
What can a person do to keep the trees on their own property safer during a storm?
For residents with large trees on their property, Peper said some measures to safeguard trees can begin at home.
“There are a large number of trees that have not been taken good care of,” she said. “And they're going over in backyards.”
Often, Peper said residents with trees on their property aren’t maintaining them regularly enough or don’t know how to check for damage. If a person doesn’t know where to begin, Peper said they can contact either a consulting arborist or an ISA-certified arborist to check on their trees.
“Those two and only those two are certified in looking at tree risk assessment,” she said. “There are a gazillion tree [companies] here in Sacramento with none of them certified.”
Pskowski added that some basic maintenance can be done without an arborist as well.
“After the storm, when it's not windy, go out and just look at your tree,” he said.
He said residents can check a tree by looking at its branches. Do they see any cracks, anything that’s fallen off? Even if the tree hasn’t fallen over, has it tossed up any soil, which could mean it’s potentially loose in the ground? Taking note of details like these can be helpful when assessing whether or not a tree needs some follow-up with a professional.
Additionally, he said the Sacramento Tree Foundation has resources for a variety of needs on its website.
Should the city start cutting down more trees?
Pskowski said he hopes not. While the fallout from this series of storms has been catastrophic for many residents, he said weather events with this impact are not the norm.
“Don’t cut down the tree because of fear,” he said. “You have to look at all the other benefits, the oxygen, energy, savings, CO2 sequestration and put those all together.”
Both Peper and Pskowski said caring for trees and keeping an eye on those within your own property can help in avoiding damage in the future.
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Paula Peper. It has been corrected.