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Local tree-care firms respond to rash of storms: Forestry specialists and arborists work 14-hour days to keep up with sky-high demand in central Indiana

June 23, 2008

If there's a silver lining to high winds and torrential rain, it can be found in the bank accounts of companies called upon to clean up the mess. For the dozens of tree cutting, trimming and hauling firms that fill up seven pages in the local Yellow Pages, the storms of late spring came at just the right time.

"We didn't get one call for three weeks prior to the storms hitting," said Russell Goodman, owner of locally based All Seasons Affordable Tree Service. "The slowdown in the economy has really hurt a lot of people in our industry. People are just putting off all expenses that aren't absolutely necessary."

Companies that trim and remove trees became a necessity in central Indiana in late May, when high winds, lightning and a tornado hit the north and east sides of Indianapolis. Then came the June 7 storm that dumped as much as 10 inches of rain on parts of southern Marion County and points south. It was the biggest gully washer here in more than 40 years, meteorologists said.

The saturated ground spelled doom for trees with shallow root systems and sent consumers scrambling for the pricey services of local tree companies.

The cost of tree cutting and removal varies, but local firm operators said the average cost to remove a single, mature tree is $1,000 to $1,800.

"We've had some jobs with multiple trees costing as much as $10,000," said Stephen Courchaine, owner of Indianapolis-based Angel Oak Tree Care. "For three weeks, we've had crews out 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week."

Local tree care firms report that business is up 20 percent to 30 percent in the last month. Most of the firms are small businesses, with annual revenue from tree care ranging from about $500,000 to $600,000. That means the storm brought in about $10,000 to $12,000 worth of extra business for the month.

Many of the companies also offer other services, such as landscaping, snow removal and hauling.

But the high winds and rain don't necessarily mean a windfall for local tree care firms. Overhead swells along with the bump in business.

After the recent storms, Courchaine beefed up his two crews from two to four men each, adding significantly to overhead. An experienced tree cutter can demand $25 an hour, firm owners said.

Skyrocketing fuel prices also add to overhead. And there are the costs that never go away: certification for on-staff arborists, hefty insurance premiums and lots of heavy-duty equipment, including everything from chain saws and climbing ropes to huge bucket trucks.

"In many ways, it can be a challenging business," said Harvey Holt, Purdue University professor of urban forestry. Anyone with a truck and a chainsaw can participate, but "experience means a lot in this industry, both in terms of a firm's ability to get the job done right, and to be able to do it in a way that keeps them in business," he said.

Managing overhead during peak demand periods is just one challenge for local firms. Another major challenge, said Jeff Harbert, owner of Green Arbor, a tree care firm located on the city's south side, is balancing regular clients with emergency work during storm outbreaks.

"This is a word-of-mouth business, so you have to take care of those regular clients," Harbert said.

"If you don't, you can bet somebody else will," added All Seasons' Goodman.

Many of the local firms reported having a four- to six-week backlog of service calls. Harbert and Goodman said regular customers usually get preferential treatment-even during storm and emergency events.

But some emergencies, Angel Oak's Courchaine said, can't be ignored.

"When personal property and human lives are at stake, you become almost like an emergency responder," said Courchaine, who studied forestry at Michigan Technological University and who's been in the tree business 33 years. "We've taken trees right off of houses. In one case, we removed one right off a guy's dining room table."

Consumers must bear the brunt of the cost. Unless the tree falls on personal property, such as a vehicle or house, insurance covers little of the expense. In some cases, insurance will cover damage caused by a lightning strike, but it seldom covers wind damage. Few insurance companies pay more than $500 for tree cutting and clean-up.

Purdue's Holt said some of the damage can be prevented with regular tree maintenance.

"If you have your trees properly inspected and trimmed, you really can protect them against wind damage," Holt said. "If you have the dead limbs cleared out, and trim the tree properly to assure proper growth and keep it from becoming too top heavy, you can save yourself a lot down the line. If you wait until the storm damage is done, you're going to pay a premium for the service."
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