A downed blue spruce on Guido Street cut power for 194 residents. Credit: Robin Buller

Guido Street residents in Oakland’s Laurel Heights neighborhood ventured outside Thursday morning to survey the damage caused by a blue spruce that fell during the previous night’s storm, tearing down electrical lines and causing 194 PG&E customers to lose power. As they took in the scene, a car pulled up, and an arborist offered them a business card.

By Thursday night, over 60 trees had been reported down across the city of Oakland. The damage has created a surge of work for local arborists, who say the maintenance of trees is overdue, and the jobs desperately needed. 

Trex Donovan, certified risk-management arborist and owner of Buena Vista Tree Service, was prepared to lay off a third of his team before storm-related service requests started pouring in over the past week. “I’ve got twenty plus guys working for me. I was looking at cutting it back to more like 15 or 16,” he said. “It was slow during the holidays, so in a way, the storms are kind of a blessing to the tree companies.”

Storms reliably generate income for tree service companies, but according to Donovan, the most recent weather system has created more work than usual, in part because of the effects of economic inflation and lower consumer spending rates. 

“Because money is tight for people, with inflation and everything else, a lot of homeowners have deferred maintenance over the past couple of months,” he said. 

Deferred maintenance, in addition to hurting arborists financially, makes trees more vulnerable. Diseased and dying trees are left standing. Dead or precariously positioned limbs are left growing over homes and roads. All of these are more likely to topple in a storm. However, arborists including Donovan are hopeful that witnessing the recent storm’s damage will push Oakland homeowners to hire experts who can do necessary preventative work.

“This is going to keep us busy. It’s going to make people more aware of their trees, so it’ll help invigorate the tree industry for at least a couple of months.”

Postponed assessments and trimmings aren’t solely to blame, however. In the East Bay, harsh climate conditions have set the stage for tree failures (the term that arborists use for trees that fall in entirety). Prolonged annual droughts have led to damaged roots, while bursts of moisture – like that caused by the bomb cyclone this past week – have loosened soils, weakening the grip of underground root systems.

Employees of JMV Tree Service put cedar limbs in a chipper. Credit: Robin Buller

In advance of Wednesday’s bomb cyclone, East Bay arborists readied themselves for what they anticipated would be widespread damage and a hectic work schedule. 

“I took all the jobs I had on calendar and pushed them out to next week, so that all of my guys were ready to go,” said Donovan. “Chippers were ready, chainsaws were ready, stump grinders were ready, trucks were all empty, dump sites were lined up.”

An employee of JMV Tree Services explained that they, too, prepared themselves for an onslaught. “You’ve got to be by the phone,” said Luís on Thursday afternoon, acknowledging that it had been a particularly busy day. 

When storms affect entire neighborhoods, individual calls often turn into multiple jobs for savvy arborists. With damage being concentrated in certain neighborhoods—especially in the Oakland hills—one job can lead to another. 

On Thursday, Buena Vista Tree Service responded to a downed tree on Marlow Drive near Lake Chabot. “I thought it was an earthquake,” said renter Mary Lou, describing the loud cracking sound the tree made as it toppled and sliced through her front fence.  

When Donovan and his team arrived on the scene, they noticed that the house next door had experienced tree damage, as well: a large limb had fallen onto its roof, bending a gutter and putting pressure on a power line. 

“We called PG&E, we called 311, and after we didn’t get anything from them, I also called the Oakland Fire Department,” said Alan, the homeowner, who had been concerned about the safety of the power lines. With no one responding to his calls, Alan hired Buena Vista on the spot. 

Still, Donovan warned that homeowners should do their due diligence when hiring someone to do tree work. Price gouging, he said, is more prevalent after adverse weather. 

“There are a lot of companies that do price gouging during emergency situations,” he said. “They have a tendency to charge double or triple what they’d normally charge.”

To avoid overpaying, homeowners should get multiple quotes whenever possible, and keep average prices in mind. 

“A normal day’s wages for a crew of five or six guys is somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand dollars,” said Donovan. “If you’re getting charged seven or ten thousand dollars for a day’s worth of work—and it’s not out of hours, and it’s a normal Monday through Friday work day—just be careful.”

Robin Buller is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. She holds a doctorate in history from UNC Chapel Hill and has written a book about immigrants in 1920s Paris. Originally from Canada, she has lived in the East Bay since 2018.