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Tree service companies and crane operators in Sonoma County had their hands full this winter with crashing limbs and trees as the recent years of drought appeared to have made oaks, pines and firs more vulnerable to the forces of multiple intense storms.

“It’s been epic, to say the least,” said Jeff Kowell, president of Image Tree Service in Windsor.

He estimated his business picked up roughly 25 percent over the winter.

Tyler Eliff, whose family owns Precision Crane Service in Windsor, said business typically slows in winter. But this year, repeated calls for his cranes came from utilities, businesses and homeowners dealing with downed trees that needed to be lifted.

“I’d say we’ve done 20 times the amount of unplanned tree work than we have in the past,” Eliff said.

Pounding storms on the North Coast have long been known to flood rivers, submerge low-lying rural roads and topple trees onto power lines, cars and structures.

During the state’s five-year drought, such storms were relatively rare. But this season the rains started coming before Thanksgiving and the region was battered by a series of storms through much of the winter.

Before Monday, the first day of spring, Santa Rosa had received 52.92 inches since Oct. 1, compared to 30.64 inches for an average year.

This winter, trees toppled onto homes in such communities as Sebastopol, Summerhome Park and Sonoma Valley. In Ukiah, a 35-year-old mother of two died when a massive oak crashed into her apartment unit in January.

In the Sonoma Valley area of Agua Caliente, Kathy Truax had a live oak tree topple onto her home about 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. Both she and her neighbors initially thought lightning had struck nearby, but it was actually the booming crash of the tree and the flash of an exploding power transformer when the oak took down adjacent power lines.

Truax was unharmed. Her daughter and son-in-law, who own her Park Avenue house, soon called Atlas Tree Service & Landscape in Santa Rosa. The company had a crew out by dawn.

“They were great,” Truax said.

The oak, which measured 50 inches in diameter, “was perfectly healthy” when cut up, she said.

Several years back, an arborist had cabled together two of its large trunks to prevent the tree from splitting and Truax emphasized, “It didn’t split at all. The whole darn thing came down.”

“It was a tree nobody looked at and thought was in trouble,” Truax said.

Her home’s roof that day was securely covered with a tarp, and contractors are scheduled to start repairs there in May.

Many trees this season couldn’t withstand the saturated soils and the thrashing winds.

Jake Schneider, a co-owner of Pacific Tree Care in Calistoga, said one reason is the trees in recent years hadn’t been strengthened by occasional strain from windy storms.

He likened it to staked trees that don’t become as strong as those that stand unbraced and over time gain the ability to better withstand strong winds.

Without many storms in recent years, some trees grew “beyond their ability to hold themselves up,” Schneider said.

The drought also appears to have affected many root systems.

Eliff is quick to note that he isn’t an arborist and that his company merely provides cranes for those who cut up the downed trees.

Nonetheless, he said, this winter he watched the removal of many toppled trees in Marin and Sonoma counties that appeared to be no more than 15 years old.

A common trait among those trees was their root structure was “below average in size,” possibly from the lack of water during the years of drought, he said.

Another factor was the extremely wet soil conditions that further affected the trees’ stability.

Spring may have arrived, but the tree experts said it’s too early to announce an all-clear from falling trees and branches.

Schneider, who estimated his business has increased about 20 percent this winter, said as the trees add foliage, the extra weight could cause some weakened limbs to drop in what he characterized as “self pruning.”

Kowell predicted tree companies will have plenty of work for the next few years because of stress that trees suffered during the drought.

Some lacked adequate water, including those in residential yards where homeowners halted their lawn irrigation, which also watered trees.

Also, insects took a toll on some species that lacked the water they needed to make sap to combat insects.

It’s a reason the U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 102 million trees have died from drought and from beetle infestations in California forests in the last seven years.

“It’s all related to stress,” Kowell said.

The upside of the abundant rain is that it will help provide nutrients to strengthen trees and other vegetation throughout the region.

“We should have a real good growth year,” said Schneider.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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