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Northern California Company Clears Steep Grove

Thu May 14, 2009 - West Edition
Valerie Van Kooten

Constructing an addition to a major hospital is not so unusual, but having to clear a grove of eucalyptus trees on an extremely steep hillside before doing so was a major challenge for Rich Kingsborough and his crew at Atlas Tree Service in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Atlas Tree has been providing brush and tree-clearing work in the northern California area since 1982, when the company started with a chainsaw and a pickup truck. Today, Atlas has residential crews all over Sonoma County, and commercial crews all over California. But the job for a San Francisco hospital posed problems due to safety, logistics and clearance issues.

The work consisted of clearing a hillside just above the University of San Francisco Medical Hospital that included a grove of 150 eucalyptus trees. “The trees averaged about 100 feet tall,” said Kingsborough, president of Atlas Tree. “The hillside was so steep, we couldn’t even walk on it — we actually had to be secured from the hospital access road above the hillside, using our tree-climbing saddles and ropes.”

How to remove the trees without actually being on the hillside was the challenge. “Our commercial estimator, Jim Finney, and crew supervisor, Todd Eisenhauer, both told me that this is going to be a really difficult job,” Kingsborough said. “We knew the safety requirements would be extreme since this was a university hospital. Also, the construction project manager, a company called DPR, stressed safety on the job.”

Kingsborough knew the plan would have to take all the safety issues into account and still get the job done to everyone’s satisfaction.

The plan was that Kingsborough would rent a 70-ton (63.5 t) crane provided by Sheedy Crane out of San Francisco, that would be operated from the access road above the hillside. A tree climber would “ride the ball” to the tree and tie it off, or “choke” it. This involves a climber tying off above the ball of the crane and then being lifted and swung over the hillside to the tree. The climber “chokes” the tree by securing it to the crane with steel cables and descends from the crane to make a cut from the ground. If the crane cannot lift the whole tree, the climber makes the cut from the tree according to how much weight the crane can lift in that position. The crane operator then lifts the tree and places it on the road.

Because of the small diameter of where the trees had to be “choked” — 4 to 6 in. (10 to 15 cm) in many cases, it was safer for the climber to be tied to the crane while setting the chokers, Kingsborough said. “I knew this was going to be a real question mark in terms of safety,” he said. “I had to demonstrate to DPR and Pacific States, the general contractor, how it could be done safely in addition to providing them with the OSHA specifications that allow a qualified tree climber to do that.”

Frank Werbelow, the safety manager for DPR’s North Bay Division, said his company wasn’t so sure they could go along with the Atlas Tree plan at first.

“They wanted to ride the headache ball of the crane, and we were afraid it was going to set the industry back 10 years,” Werbelow said with a laugh. However, he adds that personnel at Atlas Tree found a 2005 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation written during the San Diego fires that allows tree trimmers to ride the ball in certain situations where the angles or diameters of the tree make that a safer approach.

“We bought into it and Sheedy Crane bought into it, even though it was against their policy,” Werbelow said. “They said, ’If you guys are okay with it, we are.’ There were strict guidelines to follow and we made sure they were followed.”

Once the tree was cut, the crane lifted it to the hospital access road above the hillside. The Atlas Tree crew grabbed it with a skid steer and fed it into a brush chipper. Kingsborough used the new Vermeer BC2100XL brush chipper for the job, one that is capable of processing whole trees that have limbs and branches attached to the main trunk.

The Vermeer BC2100XL is built for production and features a 21-in. (53 cm) capacity and the largest infeed table in its class, allowing for smooth material feeding. Offset horizontal feed rollers have theoretical combined 10,000 lbs. (4,536 kg) of pulling force and allow for easier feeding of material and less need for manual control of the upper feed roller when chipping large diameter material. An exclusive SmartCrush system provides increased down pressure on the material being fed and assists when feeding forked or branchy material.

Altas Tree purchased the Vermeer chipper in the summer of 2008 and said it has used it on a daily basis since. “We needed something that wouldn’t take a lot of room,” Kingsborough said. “We were looking for something that would be a high-production machine, but would be more maneuverable into smaller areas.”

The road above the hospital hillside was narrow, but the new chipper was set up without taking up too much room. One advantage of the Vermeer BC2100XL is its capacity for chipping nonstop.

“It chipped the whole tree, and we didn’t need to cut anything up,” said Kingsborough. “Once our walking-floor trailer was set up, we had plenty of capacity to chip all day.”

Atlas Tree transported the chips back to its yard, where they were processed for sale to landscape supply yards.

The job was completed by the middle of September 2008 and took about 20 days with four to five employees — out of Atlas Tree’s 50 employees — on the job most of the time.

“We used to have a lot of other machines, but recently we’ve been purchasing more Vermeer,” said Kingsborough. “We’re slowly phasing out our other machines and switching to Vermeer, mostly because of the service and the improved product.”

Even though the economy appears to be slowing down, Kingsborough said he’s busier than ever. “What really helped us is the quality people working here at Atlas, most of whom have worked here more than 10 years. Also, we started traveling about 10 years ago,” he said. “Everyone thought we were foolish to do that and that we should stay in town, but we needed to keep the equipment working. I think it’s really paid off in these tough times. We have contractors all over California calling us for work.”

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