Power Lines Are Their Adversaries : Tree Experts Cultivate Skills for Risky Tasks

Times Staff Writer

Pedro Alvarado, a tree surgeon, recalls the Bible passage (Mark 8:24) about a blind man who said he envisioned "men as trees walking."

Trees are like men not walking, Alvarado says.

"Trees get sick like people and need help--especially when (unlike men) they grow into electrical power lines."

Alvarado is one of 48 tree surgeons employed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who go out on a limb each day to trim the more than 160,000 trees in the city that can potentially cause a power outage.

Because of the maturity of many trees--the city planted a large number 20 years ago, near or under power lines, during a building boom--and the heavy rainy seasons during the last two years, the surgeons are waging a never-ending battle against their advancing growth, according to William Swain, a DWP tree crew foreman.

"We'll probably never have every tree trimmed," he said.

Small Part of Battle

But trimming branches is only a small part of the battle, according to the men who do it. Their work is a daily struggle against the fear of heights and the possibility of accidents.

Then there are bees, bats, fleas and rats, they add.

"It is work that separates the men from the boys," Aldolfo Carmona, another crew foreman, said. "It's a jungle out there."

David Herron, 30, a member of Carmona's crew, says he is a survivor of that jungle.

Sporting gold-plated chain saws on his belt buckle, Herron also wears on his left wrist the scars of a work-related accident. A chain saw nearly severed his hand last year.

He said he had second thoughts about returning to work after that, but found himself back in the trees in two months.

"I do a lot of praying," he said.

Herron's buddies on the crew said his is the stuff of which good tree surgeons are made. When he had a weight problem, he lost 30 pounds. And, although his hand was still numb after the chain saw accident, he returned to work.

But Herron said that it took him a year and a half to start concentrating on his work and not on the heights.

"I didn't think I was going to make it as a tree surgeon," Herron said, recalling his adjustment after the accident. "I had nightmares about falling out of trees and over live wires."

Three-Month Adjustment

A tree surgeon's assistant usually takes three months to overcome his fear of heights, Swain, the tree crew foreman, said. "By that time you can tell if he's going to make it. . . ."

An assistant is given a six-month training-probation period, during which he works as a member of a crew, according to Jim Noble, superintendent of the DWP's power distribution division.

Written and performance examinations follow before he can become a full-fledged tree surgeon. Depending on experience, a DWP tree surgeon makes $2,051 to $2,547 a month.

Candidates are required to identify trees and their growth habits, demonstrate a knowledge of preservation and trimming procedures and the uses of insecticides and fungicides, according to company literature.

After passing the written test, trainees must demonstrate their skill in rope-tying, climbing and trimming at a training facility at the Ascot Reservoir in El Sereno.

Without the extensively trained tree surgeons, Los Angeles would be in the dark, Noble said, explaining that tree-related problems cause the highest number of power failures in the city.

Winds Increase Emergencies

During the Santa Ana wind season, emergency calls increase the workload by about 40%, Swain said, as crews work around the clock to pick up felled trees and severed power lines.

As a result, the tree-trimming budget has grown to be one of the biggest expenditures in city maintenance--$7.9 million for the 1984-85 fiscal year, according to the DWP.

Trees are supposed to be trimmed on a two-year cycle, according to DWP standards. But the city has been about two years behind schedule for the last several years, Noble said. In an attempt to catch up, the city recently contracted with 12 teams from outside the department to augment the 16 five-member DWP crews, he said.

But even to the most fearless surgeon, the task has not become easier.

Recently, Alvarado, 34, was trimming a branch near some power lines, when the eucalyptus limb on which he was bracing himself snapped. His co-workers gasped as the man they regard as the best climber in the group slipped and swung precariously from his safety rope, about 40 feet from the ground.

Their rope, or "lifeline," is thrown over the crotch of a branch overhead once the surgeon climbs to his destination. One man died 10 years ago, Swain said, when his rope slipped from his harness as he hung from his line. The harness has since been redesigned and there have been no similar incidents, he said.

Steel Spurs

The tree surgeons carry on their seat harness two 24-inch hand saws, a 100-foot rope and an aerosol can of growth retardant that is used to spray the wounds caused by cutting the tree. On their legs are five-pound steel spurs that aid them in climbing.

Most tree surgeons working for the DWP have had a limb break under them, the tree trimmers say. And all have been jolted at least once by the electric current flowing through a water-logged branch that has brushed up against a live power line.

"We have to expect the unexpected," Ricky Escamille, 30, said. "We see (tree) limbs break all the time."

"I've been zapped," he added, recalling the time he accidentally touched a free branch that was resting on a power line.

Victor Viramontes, 28, a fifth-year surgeon, shuddered and nodded in agreement. "It tingles all over, but it doesn't feel too good. You know it's an electric current going through you."

Hard-to-Climb Trees

Aside from the dangers of branches snapping and electric currents, all agreed that certain trees are more difficult to work on than others. Palm trees topped the list of the hardest to climb, followed closely by the tall and narrow eucalyptus. There are also trees like the silk oak that require total body coverage for the trimmer because of its glass-like fibers that stick into the skin.

And there have been encounters with creatures that make the trees their home.

Calvin Davis, 31, an assistant, recalled the time he disturbed a nest of bees in a tree in Woodland Hills and was stung on his face, neck and arms.

He also remembers an incident in which he and his crew entered a backyard near San Pedro and Avalon avenues and were instantly covered with fleas.

"We started running and stripping off our clothes," Swain, his foreman, said. "But the more we moved the more they covered us. We were bit badly."

There was also the time that Johnny McKinzie, 34, found himself eye to eye with an opossum "as big as a cat" in a tree in the Silver Lake district.

"It was hissing at me," McKinzie said, "showing his teeth. It scared me and it wouldn't back up. I knew one of us had to go."

McKinzie said he eventually mustered up the courage to shoo it away because the tree had to be trimmed.

Worst 'Animal'

Occasionally, the worst "animal" a tree surgeon has to contend with is the homeowner, Ricky Roberts, 30, said.

"We are like the dentist," he said. "Most people want to see us only when they're in trouble. I resent being called a 'tree butcher.' I consider myself a doctor of trees."

Swain said some homeowners have come out with shotguns to bar access to their trees, while others have insisted that they do cosmetic trimming.

Their most difficult problem, the tree surgeons agree, is the summer heat.

On 100-degree days, they have worked wearing their 30-plus pounds of equipment and long-sleeved flannel shirts to protect their arms from scratching twigs.

They have learned to leave the foliage at the top of the tree for shade as they work, cutting it last, Swain said. "There are little tricks you have to learn for survival."

Although they have all experienced dizziness and heat prostration, Swain said, they are prepared to work a full eight hours, even when it is extremely hot.

Camaraderie on the Job

But despite the hazards of the job, they said, there is no other adventure or camaraderie to compare.

"We are always looking for more dangerous jobs," Escamille said. "I wouldn't want to climb just poles. The power line workers think we're crazy for climbing trees and we think they're crazy for climbing poles with all those live wires."

"The guys have really helped me through a lot," said Herron, rubbing the scars where his hand was nearly severed.

He said he was in shock when the chain saw cut through his gloves and into his wrist last May. It was because of the quick thinking of his buddies, he said, that his hand was saved. He also credits them with his ability to use his hand today.

"They would come over and help me work it out with weights," Herron said. "We like spending time together on the job and off. . . . It's like a family here."

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