I heard a sinister, slow-motion cracking and then a whomp! An electrical brown-out immediately afterward confirmed our fears: Stiff storm winds Sunday, Jan. 31, had toppled a tree, which fell through a power line.
Worse yet, the pine tree was from our property.
It was one of 15 such incidents that would require the help of emergency crews within 2.5 hours that afternoon, according to county road crews.
Trees fell on open land, across roads and on houses, a car, a shed, decks and properties on Alban Place, Berwick Drive, London Lane, Dreydon Avenue, Wilton Drive, Pierce Avenue, Brighton Lane, Orville Avenue, Woodview Avenue, Buckley Drive and Pico Avenue in San Simeon, just to name a few.
Many fallen trees didn’t prompt immediate calls to emergency services, because they hadn’t seriously damaged a building and weren’t blocking roads or affecting utilities.
Later, PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey, who was in Cambria that afternoon, estimated the area had been raked by damaging gale- and storm-force wind gusts of 60 mph or above.
But back on Cambria’s Top of the World neighborhood, I was about to get answers to a question I’d been asking myself (and planning to write about) for some time: “What happens if your tree falls?”
Throughout the four years of drought, we’d prepared for emergencies, with go bags, evacuation lists and more. I’d printed a list of utility and other emergency phone numbers and posted it on my calendar.
We’d been advised about our many trees by firefighters, a certified arborist, a forester, a biologist, tree specialists and landscapers.
Some areas of Cambria’s landmark Monterey pine forest have been ravaged by the drought, beetle infestations and diseases. Tree experts warn that El Nino storms would be hard on Cambria’s damaged forest, especially the shallow-rooted, top-heavy, aging pines.
Add gale-force winds and saturated soil, and it’s a recipe for falling trees.
The specialists we consulted agreed most of our trees were in reasonably good shape. They identified the few that weren’t, and we were taking action to remove them.
In fact, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, a Cal Fire representative had tagged two of our trees, identifying them as being dead and suitable for removal.
The tree that fell wasn’t one of those.
Instead, it was what our friend Mike Rice calls a “catcher’s mitt” pine, with heavy, healthy foliage on top that can act like a sail to trap strong winds.
After the crash about 2:30 that afternoon, our son Brian and I immediately rushed outside to find one neighbor outside calling 911 on his cellphone (we also called). A smoking, live electrical wire lay on his car, between us and him. Snapping electricity was arcing from the other end of the same broken wire.
It was terrifying.
Other neighbors huddled farther down Pineridge Drive, looking at the pine tree’s crown lying on the pavement near their house.
But thank goodness, nobody was hurt and there was no damage.
The answer to my question was a veritable ballet of coordinated emergency services, some of them responding because the tree had fallen across a county right-of-way and was blocking a county street:
▪ Firefighters from Cambria Fire Department arrived quickly, assessed the risky situation and blocked traffic heading toward the “hot” wire area. Then the firemen were called to another hazardous situation, so our son stood guard, warning people about the danger.
▪ PG&E’s troubleman Nick Molnar de-energized and disconnected the wire. Then he, too, got called to another incident.
▪ Leadworker Michael Hill and his co-worker from the county Public Works road crew formally taped off the entrance to Pineridge Drive, so Brian could go back inside where it was warmer and safer.
▪ Molnar returned to confirm for Hill and the Davey Tree workers that he’d cut power to the line on the ground.
▪ The Davey crew cut away the crown of the tree to reopen access for the residents on Pineridge.
▪ Shortly before sunset, three big PG&E rigs arrived, so crewmembers Brian Muro, Leonard Meyers and Chad Sheffield could run new wire and make other repairs, working in the cold and wind for hours, until about 10 p.m.
About halfway through their ordeal, we took them some coffee and cake to fuel them through what was undoubtedly a very long work day.
▪ Lindsey said later that a maximum of 380 North Coast customers had been without electricity during the windstorm. Some of the 50 PG&E accounts affected by our falling tree were back online within a couple of hours. All but six were reconnected by 7:35 p.m. and electrical service was restored to those by about 3 a.m.
▪ But our rescue wasn’t finished. About 9:30 a.m. Monday, we heard the telltale “beep, beep, beep” of a large vehicle backing up. County road workers in a big loader, bigger dump truck and a truck made quick work of loading and hauling away the brush and branches that Davey’s guys had stacked on the county right of way the day before.
In less than 24 hours, we’d gone from crisis mode back to nearly normal, but with a large pine trunk (now horizontal) and huge root ball (nearly vertical) in our meadow.
We were very grateful for the rapid responses and help. Our fallen tree meant our neighbors were without electricity in the fierce windstorm. I knew it wasn’t our fault — we’ve tried every way we knew to be proactive about trees and safety. But I felt badly that our tree had inconvenienced neighbors and the many workers who came out in the nasty weather to make sure we were safe, dry and warm.
Storm safety tips
▪ Never touch a downed power line or go near one. Power lines are not insulated like power cords. Always assume the power line is live.
▪ Call 911 immediately to report a fallen power line.
▪ Do not touch anything or anyone in contact with a fallen power line or other equipment.
▪ Keep children and pets away from fallen electric wires.
▪ Do not drive over a fallen power line.
If a power line touches your car while you’re in it:
▪ Stay inside. The safest place is in your car. The ground around your car may be energized.
▪ Use your mobile phone to call 911.
▪ Honk the horn, roll down your window and yell for help.
▪ Warn others to stay away. Anyone who touches the equipment or ground around the vehicle may be injured.
▪ Fire department, law enforcement and PG&E workers will tell you when it is safe to get out of the vehicle.
Southern California Gas
▪ Learn ahead of time how to recognize and respond to a natural gas leak.
▪ If you smell a natural gas odor, hear the hissing sound of gas escaping or see other signs of a leak, immediately evacuate the area, and from a safe location either call 911 or the SoCalGas 24-hour hotline at (800) 427-2200.
▪ Don’t smoke, or light a match, candle or other flame.
▪ Don’t turn electrical appliances or lights on or off, operate motorized equipment or vehicles, or use any device that could cause a spark.