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The End Is Near for Burlington's Biggest Tree

Local Matters


BURLINGTON - The buzz of a chainsaw is a common sound in most parts of this rural state, but it's a little unusual in the tightly packed residential neighborhoods of Vermont's largest city - especially when it's coming from 80 feet up.

That's how high Mike Fallis of Limbwalkers Tree Service was perched last Wednesday as he pruned an Eastern Cottonwood in the city's South End. The tree, which measures approximately 129 feet tall and 21.5 feet around at the base, is Burlington's biggest. It rises from a backyard on Howard Street and looms over a cluster of houses.

The mammoth cottonwood has been there for as long as anyone can remember, but its life appears to be drawing to a close. The tree was struck by lightning last month, during the same storm that ignited a fire at the new student center under construction at the University of Vermont.

Michele Schmidt, who bought the house at 59 Howard with her husband Gavin three years ago, says the early morning storm that struck the tree was scary. "The sky lit up, my ears were ringing. You could smell something burning," she recalls. "It felt like a bomb dropped on our backyard."

The Schmidts were lucky - the lightning traveled through the tree and exited from a long gash near the roofline of their house. Workers from Limbwalkers found wood from the tree on the opposite side of Howard Street, and a squirrel got fried and landed on the roof of a neighbor's house, but none of the branches fell. "It could have done way more damage than it did," says Michele Schmidt.

Because the tree is on the Schmidts' property, it was their responsibility to have it examined. After the storm, they called Limbwalkers, who recommended that the damaged branches be removed.

But cutting back a big tree in an urban area is tricky. Fallis and his orange-helmeted crew attached a variety of ropes hung from pulleys to the lightning-struck limbs before firing up the saw.

When Fallis finally cut through one 3-foot-thick leafy bough, the wood cracked dramatically, but instead of falling, the 20-foot-long limb swung in an arc above Schmidt's house. The leaves barely grazed neighbor Richard Lavalley's roof. "Yeah!" Fallis yelled as his three-man crew gingerly lowered the wood into Lavalley's backyard.

Once it was down, the crew fed the limb into a wood chipper parked in Lavalley's driveway. The wood chips would be sent to Burlington's McNeil wood-burning plant.

The elaborate operation drew some onlookers. A man and four children sat on a lawn on Hayward Street to watch, and Schmidt snapped a few photos on her cell phone. Burlington City Arborist Warren Spinner also stopped by. "Rigging like that is an art," he observed. "It's like playing a game of chess. You always have to be thinking about the next move."

This week, Schmidt notes that the job is also expensive - their insurance covers $500, and a few neighbors have offered to pitch in, but it will still cost them a couple thousand dollars.

And, she adds, she'll probably be paying out more over the next few years; even if the tree recovers from the lightning strike - which it may not - it will probably need to come down soon anyway.

"It breaks my heart," Schmidt says. "I don't want to be responsible for removing the tree. But maybe the lightning was nature's way of saying it was time to go."