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Evergreens, conifers get brunt of storm

Trees that retain needles sustained most wind damage. Clearings added to problem.

Some cars on Alberdeen Road in Mountain Top were heavily damaged by the storm on Friday.

Times leader staff photo/Don Carey

Commonwealth Telephone employee Scott Soboleski works on lines damaged by fallen trees on the Alberdeen Road in Mountain Top.

Times leader staff photo/Don Carey

WRIGHT TWP. – Tom Rutt’s yard along South Main Road looks like a war zone. Tree trunks and limbs litter the property like spilled matchsticks.

“Almost all of the big pines in front of the house are gone. All but one stood along the driveway and four in the back of the house fell like dominoes on top of each other,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

A mess like so many other places in the Mountain Top area after Friday’s tornado.

Oddly, there is a common theme within the destruction – the majority of the trees that uprooted or snapped are evergreen, pine or spruce.

Vincent Cotrone, an urban forester with the Penn State Cooperative Extension office in West Pittston, said it’s not a coincidence that the evergreen and conifer varieties were more susceptible to the 100 mph winds.

A combination of yearlong needle retention and shallow root systems makes it easier for high winds to topple conifer and evergreen trees, Cotrone said. Deciduous trees, such as oak and maple, have already lost their leaves and the wind can pass through the bare branches. Trees that retain their needles year round take the brunt of the wind. Throw in a shallow root system, and Cotrone isn’t surprised that hemlock, pine and spruce trees are strewn across the Mountain Top area.

Kelly Swartwood, who also lives on South Main Road, lost all three trees in her yard. They were all enormous, all pines.

“I never thought they would come down. They were like gigantic landmarks,” she said. “We have no trees left in our yard. It’s wide open.”

Cotrone said there are other factors. The soil structure in the area is generally thin and rocky, leaving already shallow root systems even less to cling to. The root system of a typical pine tree in Mountain Top is probably less than a foot deep, Cotrone said. Uprooted trees are an indicator of shallow soil, he added.

Housing developments carved out in a coniferous forest can also increase the effects of wind, according to Cotrone.

“When you cut an opening in a pine or spruce forest for a house, you allow the wind to come in and swirl around,” he said. “In an unbroken forest stand, the trees protect each other and the wind slows down or goes over the top. But with a tornado, those trees aren’t prepared for it.”

Although some oaks and other hardwoods did topple in the storm, Cotrone said they would be his species of choice when it comes to planting a tree near your house.

But he cautioned homeowners not to feel obligated to remove all pine and spruce trees from around their house.

“These trees have never experienced this kind of wind,” he said. “This was a freak storm and they failed due to the force of the wind.”

The tornado not only inflicted widespread damage, it’s possible that it changed the composition of the forest in some areas.

The forest will regenerate, but different species might replace the conifers.

The faster-growing species, such as cherry and red maple, are usually the first species to sprout, followed by black birch. The fallen trees in the forest will act as a shelter for the new seedlings and return nutrients to the soil as they decompose, Cotrone said.

If there is a healthy conifer seed source on the forest floor and ample light, those species can reclaim the area, he added.

“The forest is very resilient,” Cotrone said, adding, “It will be interesting to see what grows there,” Cotrone said.

For your information Chain saw dangers

The chain saw is the tool of choice for homeowners cleaning up from Friday’s tornado. Anyone using a chainsaw should use caution when cutting trees damaged by the storm. The American Red Cross offers the following safety tips when using a chain saw to clean up debris after a storm.

If you are going to help clear tree and wood debris, you should wear at least:

• A helmet system (consisting of head, face and hearing protection)

• Cotton or leather gloves

• Chain saw protective chaps or chain saw protective pants (UL Listed)

• A pair of chain saw protective work boots with steel toes.

Also:

• Avoid contact between the bar tip and any object

• Hold the chain saw firmly with both hands

• Do not overreach

• Do not cut above shoulder height

• Look out for hazards, including broken or hanging branches, attached vines, or a dead tree that is leaning.

If the tree is broken and under pressure, make sure you know which way the pressure is going. If you’re not sure, make small cuts to release some of the pressure before cutting up the section.

Be careful of young trees on which other trees have fallen. They act like spring poles and may propel the chain saw back into your leg.

Felling a dangerous broken tree should be left to a professional cutter.

The Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency is asking property owners to report damage from Friday’s tornado and high winds.

Homeowners and business owners who sustained damage are asked to report in person to the Wright Township volunteer fire hall at 477 S. Main Road between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. today.

Property owners are advised to bring photographs of the damage, if possible.

Representatives of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and other agencies will be on hand to gather the information and help property owners begin damage recovery efforts.

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