Cambrian: Slice of Life

Tree trimmers go out on a limb for safety in Cambria

Workers sever limbs from a tree above Main Street, across from the Chevron gas station.
Workers sever limbs from a tree above Main Street, across from the Chevron gas station. ktanner@thetribunenews.com

Some jobs are inherently dangerous: Law enforcement, firefighting and daredevil athletics, to name a few.

There are other risky professions, of course (including my own, according to the United Nations). Among careers that often get overlooked in occupational-hazard ratings are utility linemen and tree trimmers.

We often see linemen on the job during the middle of a raging storm, working hard to get utility services reconnected.

Tree guys, too, take their lives in their hands (and spike-laden boots) every time they tie on a harness and start climbing, especially during storms.

Seeing a skilled tree trimmer at work is like watching a ballet on a tightrope. The guy with the chain saw is the star, and the branches swaying in the breeze are his unstable, dangerous stage.

We were reminded of that inherent jeopardy twice on the same day recently. We watched as crews removed a large, dead pine looming over Main Street, and later, I talked to a friend about her husband’s tree-work-related accident.

Blair McCormick

Nearly everybody who loves Cambria’s Monterey pine forest knows Blair McCormick. The 64-year-old certified arborist has been caring for trees and habitat in Cambria for more than 20 years. He began climbing trees professionally at the age of 16.

On May 26, Blair fell from a Lodge Hill tree he was trimming. He estimates he could have been as high up as 25 feet.

Apparently, one piece of safety equipment failed, and Blair’s usual three-phase safety system was missing a phase.

What saved him from even more serious injury was his being “very healthy, strong and in excellent shape,” his wife, Shanna McCormick of Great Gardens, said. Blair had taken decades of martial-arts training and holds a triple black belt in aiki jiu jitsu.

In a June 5 phone interview, Blair said that toward the end of his fall, he automatically went into the defensive mode he’d been taught, to flip around and “turn to the side, stretch to dissipate the energy when you hit.” Being in position “minimized the impact,” he said, especially to his head and neck.

His right shoulder took the brunt of the fall, then his hips. He has a dislocated right shoulder and three cracks in his pelvis.

Serious? Yes.

Painful? Of course.

But it could have been so much worse, the McCormicks said.

A helicopter took Blair to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, where seriously skilled orthopedic surgeons performed repairs and put a couple of screws through his pelvis.

Recovery

Blair’s nickname in the field is “Mr. Safety,” and he continually updates his education. In fact, in a touch of irony, he had recently attended a safety seminar.

“He’s very skilled at what he does,” Shanna McCormick said.

During several telephone interviews, I learned that:

▪  Shanna and Blair’s longtime crew are keeping McCormick’s Tree service going strong. That’s essential for the family’s financial future, yes, but the crew’s skills and bravery are crucial for Cambria, too. They’ll be among those helping to remove dead and dying trees, improving fire safety this summer and fall in the town and the forest.

▪  Blair’s recovery is remarkable.

“He’s doing really, really well,” Shanna said last week. “He dodged a bullet. … He’s sitting up, eating, working on his iPad, running the company, answering emails.”

He’s already at the top level of rehabilitation, she said, and she expects Blair will come home soon, then undergo months of additional therapy.

Shanna explained, “Blair will have a recovery period, but he’ll get better.”

Both said they’re profoundly grateful for the outpouring of concern from the community.

Main Street tree

The community helped to rid itself of a dead tree that could have caused injury, damage and serious traffic snarls if it had been left to fall on its own.

The pine was at the top of the steep slope across Main Street from the Chevron station and the medical building.

On May 20, Shirley Bianchi, former San Luis Obispo County supervisor and current chairwoman of the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group, spotted the hazardous tree from the vantage point of a passenger being driven up the medical building driveway toward Main.

Perhaps most drivers hadn’t noticed the tree, she said, because they were concentrating so hard, as they should be, on pedestrians, traffic and the steep grade of the driveway.

Those of us at the Focus Group’s May 25 meeting discussed the likelihood that in case of wildfire, earthquake or other disaster, the tree would fall and block the crucial evacuation route.

Out-of-town owner

We finally pinpointed the property Shirley was describing. I eventually remembered who the out-of-town owner of the parcel is and gave Cal Fire forester Alan Peters her contact information.

Alan speedily authorized the take-down.

On Thursday, June 2, Husband Richard and I were among the wide-eyed folks watching from the Main Street-Burton Drive area as Carlos Gomez, an 18-year-veteran of Tim Radecki’s North Coast Tree Service, literally went out on a limb (several of them, in fact), in the process of removing the dead tree.

Dangerous work? Absolutely. Just imagine sawing off the long end of the branch on which you are standing!

So, thank you to all Cambria’s hardworking tree guys … and get well soon, Blair.

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