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City of [fallen] Trees

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com
For a city that loves its trees, January 21, 2022 was truly a sad and horrifying night as a strong windstorm swept through the city, leaving unprecedented destruction in its wake. The storm spared no neighborhood, as sustained winds punctuated by severe gusts toppled trees, damaged homes and downed power lines.

The storm arrived at sundown Friday, but the truly terrifying wind kicked in around 11 p.m. and continued into the early morning hours. By daybreak, all was still, and the sad inventory of the night’s fury came to full light.

The giant coastal live oak in Memorial Park under which the city holds its Veterans Day observance is gone. So too, is one of the last remaining eucalyptus on College Avenue planted by Claremont’s founders. More heritage oaks lay on their sides at our cemetery, fittingly called Oak Park.

During the storm’s peak the roar of the wind sounded like a freight train and the falling trees like thunder. Witnesses described feeling disbelief as one giant tree after another gave way to the unforgiving tempest.

Driving around Claremont, it seemed every street sustained some damage, while others were far more severe. Five enormous pine trees toppled on Briarcroft Road, west of Sumner Avenue causing extensive property damage to cars and homes. A row of massive pine trees fell onto townhomes in the Claremont Club area, displacing curbs and sidewalks even as the surrounding lawn held on like a carpet torn from the floor. Eighth Street at Berkeley was completely blocked by another giant pine, while the residents of Via Zurita Street found themselves stranded at home by more downed trees.

Throughout the Claremont Village homes were damaged by trees, including the 100 Block of E. 11th Street and the 600 block of N. Indian Hill.

Saturday morning up to 1,400 homes were without power and traffic signals along both Foothill Boulevard and Towne Avenue were dark. It took days for power to be restored, including in the Village where some customers were still without electricity Monday at noon.

With so many fallen trees all over town, it was up to the community to help neighbors clear yards and even remove trees. On Butler Court, off of Armstrong Drive in north Claremont, a massive pine fell, uprooting the sidewalk, completely blocking the street and marooning about a dozen homes.

Seeing the predicament his neighbors faced, King Street resident Brad Jamison brought his chainsaw and a can of fuel to help clear the road. Even though his saw was about half the diameter of the tree, he soon hatched a plan and went to work.

“I saw the tree down and I knew it would take the city some time to get to it, so I thought I would help them out,” Jamison said.

On Saturday, City Manager Adam Pirrie signed an emergency declaration enabling Claremont to receive state funding to assist the recovery effort as well as cover costs incurred during the storm. The declaration was ratified by the Claremont City Council during its meeting Tuesday.

“To those of you who have suffered substantial property damage, to those of you whose homes are red tagged and you cannot stay there tonight, or for the foreseeable future, I just want you to know that we are here for you. If there is anything we can do to help you get through this emergency please call on us,” Mayor Jed Leano said during the council meeting.

“I had no idea when I went to bed Friday night that on Saturday morning I would be standing on a street with my neighbors whose homes were destroyed. Looking at the buildings, seeing the substantial damage that was done, it’s absolutely astonishing that we did not have any major causalities or fatalities,” he said.

During public comment Bonnie Steneck Gonzalez described the scene at her home in the Bonita Terrace Apartments as “horrific.”

“We had four humongous pine trees all located within 100 yards of each other that were completely uprooted and fell on our complex within a matter of one or two hours,” she said.
The trees landed on a string of duplexes, affecting about 10 units, and residents were evacuated around 1:30 a.m., according to Steneck Gonzalez.

“It was terrifying. Anyone who was on those streets knows what I am saying … There were trees falling left and right, branches falling everywhere,” she said, describing the evacuation process.
Steneck Gonzalez also called on the city to evaluate its tree policy including the preponderance of non-native species which are vulnerable to wind events like the one that occurred on Friday night.

During his comments Tuesday, Councilmember Corey Calaycay agreed that Claremont may need to take a look at its urban forest policy.
“I know some of our residents have concerns about our tree policies and perhaps it may be appropriate to have our community human services commission take a look at what occurred with our trees. Maybe looking at if certain breeds of trees fared better than others,” he said. “Just to recheck our policy [to ensure] our policy is the best it can be in light of what we all just experienced.”

The entire council and the city manager praised the staff response to the emergency, many of whom worked long hours, and at times in hazardous conditions.

“I have to recognize our amazing staff. Our community services, police human services and other staff put themselves in harm’s way, literally weathering the storm on Friday night to make the city safe for our residents. I am extremely proud of the commitment and dedication they have displayed in the face of some trying circumstances over the last few days,” City Manager Pirrie said.

Lenore Brashler, whose home on Eighth Street was partially covered by the top branches of the fallen pine, gave a tour of her property to Mayor Pro Tem Ed Reece on Sunday. The tree did not appear to have caused any significant damage to the home but she said it was scary when it fell.

“Our neighbors came by to see if we were all right. They were trying to find the security guy from Pilgrim Place,” she said. Not too long after, Brashler was able to reassure everyone that she and her husband Jim were fine.

“Wouldn’t you know, in the City of Trees we get really hit by a storm like this,” Brashler said.
Tree removals were prioritized to address public safety first, and then crews tackled the ones blocking public rights-of-way. By Wednesday, most of the obstructed roadways, including Eighth Street, had been cleared, even as giant stumps and large tree limbs continued to block sidewalks and partially obstruct some streets.

“We are going to be busy for a couple of weeks, if not longer, cleaning up and addressing all of the issues we’ve identified. So I just ask for the community’s patience as we work through those issues,” Pirrie said.

On Saturday, Mayor Pro Tem Reece had a moment to reflect on the loss of the huge coastal live oak that stood in front of Garner House at Memorial Park.

“That’s always been a city gathering place,” he said. “You can replant but it’s going to be decades to get that shade again. It’s really devastating, but Claremont is resilient. We will get through this.”

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