A Crane Removal in Southern California

A balanced load is delivered to a ground worker in the drop zone during the removal of a Torrey pine. All photos by Jim Klinger, courtesy of David’s Tree Service, Inc.

While no crane operation should be considered “run of the mill,” tree workers in Southern California know that arborists in other parts of the country may yawn at the thought of reading about another crane removal. Rest assured, this article is not so much about the crane operation that David’s Tree Service undertook in February 2020 as it is about a unique region of the country where tree trimming is not looked at as a skilled trade.

Just to be clear, I am not referring to the central or northern California markets, but to Southern California, specifically Orange County, Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. The reality is that in this region, tree trimming is looked at as an extension of landscaping services. This is not to take anything away from our counterparts on the ground, as they are highly capable individuals plying a skilled trade and should be respected for the work they do. Tree trimming, however, is an entirely different animal.

The sprawl of Southern California was not built around a forest of 100-year-old native trees. The urban forest that we see today was mostly planted at the time of the tract-housing development boom of the 1970s. This has led to a less-mature urban forest than those found on the East Coast and in other areas of the country. Most of the trees planted in these SoCal communities are shorter than 40 feet. Aside from California’s majestic redwoods and sequoias, the largest trees you will find in the vast urban sprawl of SoCal are a variety of eucalyptus species and Aleppo, Monterey and Canary Island pines that rarely grow taller than 80 to 90 feet. Most commercial and residential jobs can be carried out safely and efficiently using tried-and-true methods of climbing, bucket-truck operations and rigging. These factors have contributed to the misguided idea that tree trimming is a low-skilled job and can be performed by just about anyone.

In February 2020, Matthew Green, staff arborist with David’s Tree Service (DTS), received a request for an estimate from a resident in an exclusive gated community located atop a bluff in the seaside town of Laguna Beach. The request from the resident was for the removal of one dead Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) located in the front yard of his home. The tree in question had been dead for quite some time due to undetermined causes and had become a major liability, not to mention an eyesore. No problem, right? Get in there with a four-man crew, some rigging equipment, a bucket truck, a stump grinder and the ubiquitous Stihl 880 or 460 and go to town. Not so easily facilitated in this situation.

The tree itself stood 60 feet high with a 46-inch DBH (diameter at breast height), and was located atop a terraced front yard. The combined elevation and height of the tree put it well out of reach for our bucket trucks. Surrounded by tall fescue and limestone sidewalk panels and backed by a modern-style ranch home, the margin for error during this tree removal was zero. The stump needed to come out as well, and no conventional access points were available for our stump grinder. Green did the math, both figuratively and literally, decided that utilizing a crane was the only way to get the job done and began selecting the crew.

The crane lifts off the top of the Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana).

The crew Green chose for this job was led by Esteban Gonzalaz, a climber with 10 years’ experience and an employee of David’s for the past three years. While he’s had plenty of experience with crane removals, this was his largest one yet. Gonzalaz has earned the respect and confidence of DTS arborists and his peers by consistently demonstrating his ability to work safely and proficiently.

At DTS, proper chain-saw techniques, advanced rigging and risk assessment are skills most often acquired well before an experienced climber is given the opportunity to attend any additional certification classes or training courses. These skills are the fundamentals of trimming, passed down from more experienced climbers to those with the desire to do things the right way as a professional tradesperson. There is a first time for everything, and under the right circumstances, those who display a strong understanding of the fundamentals of tree work and an eagerness to learn should be given the opportunity to expand their skill sets. The hierarchy of the trades – apprentice to journeyman to master – is well known and respected for a reason. We learn from those who came before us and are better at our craft because of the knowledge that is passed down.

The community has only one way in and one way out. With our job site being located on the main street about a quarter-mile from the entrance, there was no choice but to set up a flagging closure.

At 7:30 a.m., a tailgate meeting was held on the job site to discuss the safety of the crew, pedestrians, bystanders and all ancillary personnel there to document the removal. The capabilities and limitations of the 40-ton crane, operated by Capistrano Crane, were addressed by the experienced operator. A designated area for plant material was determined, followed by a PPE check and review of the call-and-response system, the location of local hospitals and, most important, the address of the job site should something go wrong.

The community has only one way in and one way out. With our job site being located on the main street about a quarter mile from the entrance, there was no choice but to set up a flagging closure. Traffic was controlled using the appropriate early-
warning signs spaced at the required distances, two flaggers armed with a stop/slow paddle at either end, radios and clear lines of site for communication. Traffic was held on both ends of the closure during all cutting, hoisting and chipping operations. Traffic control was supplied by DTS and carried out in compliance with the Work Area Traffic Control Handbook, or WATCH, and all DOT standards.

While the rest of the crew set up traffic control, Gonzalaz and the crane operator discussed their strategy. The crane operator’s substantial experience working with tree companies and Gonzalaz’ professionalism helped make it an easy discussion, and a plan was quickly agreed on. Because of the structure of the tree and placement of the crane, it easily was agreed that the first series of cuts would be made to remove the majority of the scaffolding branches at the top of the crown to give the crane operator a window to access the leader. From where the crane was positioned, approximately 40 feet away from the tree, the crane operator had the capability of lifting 4,500 pounds.

Esteban Gonzalaz rigging the trunk.

The first cut made came in at 800 pounds, but given the anatomy of the tree, the branch got hung up in the canopy and registered at 2,500 pounds as it was being hoisted skyward. Gus Campos, the field supervisor on the job site, relayed this information to Gonzalaz using the call-and-response system. Gonzalaz continued to make conservative cuts around the circumference of the leader, while Campos relayed the weight of each branch back up to him. With most of the loads registering between 700 and 1,000 pounds, Gonzalaz was urged by the crane operator and his teammates to make bigger cuts. After each cut, while the limb was being lowered to the ground directly behind the Vermeer BC1800 chipper, Gonzalaz was given instruction on where to better place the chokers and how to better position himself for the next cut. He began to venture out further onto the limbs of the old pine and, as the canopy was opened up, his confidence grew. He started taking larger branches, first 1,200 pounds, then 1,400 pounds. With the removal nearing the finish line, Gonzalaz’s comfort level was now at an all-time high. He was now taking branches that weighed between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds. When the final cut was made, the load report came in at 4,000 pounds.

Once the tree was nothing more than a stump, the grinder was rigged to the ball of the crane and set in place for the final process. It was then removed in the same manner that it arrived.

Once the tree was nothing more than a stump, the grinder was rigged to the ball of the crane and set in place for the final process. The grinder only needed to be repositioned one time and did minimal damage to the tall fescue.

From where the crane was positioned, approximately 40 feet away from the tree, the crane operator had the capability of lifting and delivering to the drop zone up to 4,500 pounds.

The crane departed at 4 p.m. and the crew left shortly after. In all, the entire job was completed in nine hours without incident. The job was completed safely by DTS, and Gonzalaz got another crane removal under his belt.

Speaking after the job was finished, Gonzalaz said that over the course of eight hours he had sharpened his wood-weight estimation skills on a defoliated tree and gained an even higher level of confidence in his ability as a professional tree trimmer.

The stump grinder needed to be repositioned only one time and did minimal damage to the tall fescue.

“After such a large removal, I learned a lot, and next time it will be much easier,” he said, adding that the confidence gained in performing this work has given him the desire to attend the TCIA Crane Operations Specialist workshop.

Tree workers risk their lives every day much in the same way linemen, roofers, steel workers and oil workers do, yet on the West Coast, by and large, tree trimmers often are not viewed as the skilled tradespeople they are. We should take every opportunity available to educate our customers to the fact that there are tradespeople out there like Esteban Gonzalaz willing to take on new challenges in order to master their chosen craft. As competent professionals, we do not shy away from a challenge or something we have not done before. We fall back on our fundamentals, take direction from those who have “been there, done that” and rise to the occasion.

Richard Hawe, Certified Arborist, is director of business development with David’s Tree Service, Inc., a 20-year TCIA member company based in Huntington Beach, California. Founded in 1981 by David Diaz, DTS is now owned and operated by his son, Darren Diaz, and has grown from a small, residential tree-trimming enterprise into an organization with a significant presence in not only residential markets but also with homeowners associations, and with commercial and municipal work throughout Southern California.

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