Monday, March 5, 2007 | To walk through the front door of John Sevier’s Tierrasanta condo is to step from neutral stucco-land into a miniature jungle. The walls of his living-room-turned-office are lined with bamboo, the ceiling is hidden under grass skirts, and framed prints of Polynesian-themed postage stamps hang in a corner. Potted palms and giant birds of paradise dot the room and the outdoor patio. Sheaves of legal documents and books on arboriculture tower on his desk, next to a 40-inch model palm tree he constructed to show the risk power lines present to tree trimmers.

“When I spend all day outside looking at trees, I couldn’t just come home to painted walls,” he says. “I had to have kind of a luau to come home to.”

Trees are Sevier’s work, but the line between his work and life is blurred at best. He branches out, goes out on a limb — risking being labeled a sap as he spouts all of the tree puns in the book. Falling into the trimming trade 35 years ago, Sevier soon received a cold call from an attorney seeking an expert witness for a client left in a wheelchair by a falling tree limb. Now Sevier tours the country with his expert testimony — he’s the guy who knows, or tries to find out, if landowners could have done something to avoid the tragedy that comes when falling trees or branches dismember or kill people.

For a lot of people, Sevier is just a dot of a person poking out the top of a cherry-picker truck with a chainsaw. To some, he’s the person to blame when the shade of an old tree disappears, leaving buckets of sunlight to fall, unfiltered, on their faces as they stroll through the neighborhood. To others, he may seem overly cautious, the tree trimmer who shows up reciting bylaws that mandate why they need his pruning services on their property.

But a 4-year-old girl named Frieda Williams lives in Sevier’s mind, compelling him to continue his quest to make the trees of the world safer — for passersby and trimmers alike.

A falling eucalyptus branch at the San Diego Zoo ended the girl’s life in the mid-1980s. Sevier re-created the event for the courts, documenting how the branch fell and where it had been connected. Amid his investigation, he noticed and photographed a jagged stub where wind and gravity had ripped off another branch further up the tree.

That break hadn’t amounted to anything more than a quick cleanup job for the park’s landscaping crew. But it proved the smoking gun in this case — if maintenance workers had paid closer attention to the first branch break, if that jagged edge had spurred them to trim the tree’s longer, heavier branches, maybe this accident could have been avoided.

The attorneys for the Williamses, seeking damages for the toddler’s death, won the case.

‘I Can Do That’

That forensics and tree trimming would converge in Sevier’s career didn’t occur to him when he entered the tree business in the early 1970s. After a two-year stint in the Air Force in Vietnam, Sevier enrolled in a liberal arts program at Mesa College, only to realize the classes weren’t helping him figure out a career path. Walking home from the college one day, he saw some tree trimmers on the side of the road and thought, “I can do that.”

“I went out, bought tree trimming equipment and just didn’t show up for final exams,” he says.

Thirty-five years later, Sevier’s tree-trimming business, Branch Office Tree Care, has evolved from a guy carrying a chainsaw and a tool belt to a licensed contractor using an aerial-lift boom truck to trim the tops of trees countywide. Sevier has invested his life and money into the business, from two trucks — one nicknamed the White Elephant for its concurrent power, noise and sluggishness — to hand saws and chainsaws, a tree chipper trailer he hauls behind the boom truck and protective equipment.

He works on palms, eucalyptus and other trees for public and private landowners. His main concern is watching for and eradicating hazards that could lead to situations like the zoo case. And when a tree strikes, when falling limbs or trunks dismember or paralyze or kill someone, Sevier is often called in as a tree-man equivalent to a CSI investigator.

But Sevier’s concerns aren’t just for the safety of passersby. The trimmers themselves risk slicing off a digit with a chainsaw or falling from great heights. And because it seems like a job almost anyone could do — even kids climb trees, after all — the risks are buried beneath the gleaming landscaped estates typifying much of Southern California.

‘Why Are You Doing This?’

One recent morning, after a couple of days of rainy weather, Sevier parks the White Elephant on the side of Via Valarta in Tierrasanta to trim some privately owned eucalyptus trees bordering the sidewalk and bike lane. He suits up for the job, adding an orange protective helmet and earmuffs, wide wristbands (“wristies”) and self-invented denim ankle aprons (“anklies”) to his Branch Office logo shirt and jeans. When he ties bandanas around his neck, he quips that the tree-trimming costume makes him look like Mother Teresa.

In the cab of the White Elephant, Sevier keeps a bottle of SPF 45 sunscreen and a sun hat. The dashboard of each truck — a regular pickup and the boom truck — bears a copy of the best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and a Bible. He keeps a crate filled with a half-dozen 32-ounce bottles of Tangerine Gatorade Rain on the passenger-side floor.

He climbs into the bucket on top of the truck and mops out some collected rainwater with paper towels. Before he can raise the boom to trim any branches, a pedestrian stops on the sidewalk below to complain about the stumps of other trees Sevier has cut down.

“Why are you doing this?” she shrieks. When Sevier starts to explain some of the safety concerns of falling branches, she interrupts with an expletive and an argument: “I live here, I walk past here every day, and I’ve never seen a branch. … This is rape; this is absolute rape.”

She continues walking, and Sevier shakes his head.

“Not everybody likes tree pruning,” he says. “But if she were sitting in a courtroom, when Frieda Williams’ mother tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Did this have to happen?’” He trails off pensively.

“I love trees,” he continues. “That’s why I work on ’em every day. But it is so discouraging to be in the middle of doing something for the safety of the public and have somebody blindly attack me without knowing any of the statistics.”

Sevier reaches for steering knobs that start to lift the bucket high into the eucalyptus trees. The bucket jerks and bounces as he jockeys it closer to the branches he wants to cut. When he’s reached his desired height, he grabs a bowsaw from his tool belt, slathers it with oil, and starts to cut.

When the branch is severed, he angles over the side of the bucket and drops it in a clear spot on the ground. For a couple of pesky branches, he brings out his chainsaw.

“I don’t always use the chainsaw,” he says. “The handsaw is like using a needle and thread. It’s not as macho, not as glamorous. It’s like using a scalpel.”

Some of the physical training Sevier pursues to increase his effectiveness as a tree trimmer is decidedly un-macho, too. From his perch on top of the truck before he maneuvers his way into the bucket, Sevier offers this tidbit: He studied ballet for three years, stopping just a few months ago.

“It’s one of the biggest influences as far as speed, being able to stay centered,” he says. “It seemed really logical. … After six months, I found myself positioning myself in the tree totally differently.”

The dangers are different, but the motivations for being nimble are similar in ballet dancing and tree trimming, Sevier says.

“In a ballet studio, you have to be very cautious, if you’re a 185-pound man next to a bunch of 90-pound women,” he says. “It’s so easy to be a bull in a china closet.”

Sevier also weight-trains to ease the strain of lifting branches into the tree chipper, and jogs some days after work with his 21-year-old daughter. He also has a 25-year-old daughter, his children the product of a marriage that ended a few years ago. The son of a school superintendent, Sevier is the second oldest of five kids, the only son, and the only one to pursue self-employment without college training for a career. In his spare time, he works on vintage hot rods and volunteers at a church and a senior-care home.

‘Portable Electric Chairs’

But it’s tree safety that really gets Sevier speaking passionately. Even palm trees, he says — those icons of perfect weather and exotic vacation destinations — hold potential for peril. Trimmers become trapped and smothered, some asphyxiated, in the skirt of dead fronds that accumulate near the tops of palm trees. And when palms grow too close to power lines, the fronds conduct electricity through to the trimmer, passing through his boot spikes that hold him to the trunk — “portable electric chairs,” Sevier calls the spikes — and frying him and the tree in the process. The 1990s death of a trimmer in north San Diego County led to a state law, for which Sevier testified, dictating the trees have to be 18 inches from power lines.

The lack of education for tree trimmers is one of Sevier’s chief concerns as a veteran.

“The average person goes to the swap meet, buys some climbing spurs and a belt and goes up a palm tree,” he says. “They buy equipment Saturday morning and are in the tree business Saturday afternoon.”

And it’s a job populated frequently by migrant workers. Considering the problems English-speaking arborists have with the safety rules and legal regulations, the language hurdle for Spanish-speakers worries Sevier.

Completing the International Society of Arboriculture certification process and becoming a licensed contractor takes time and money, Sevier says. And because a large portion of the population looks strictly at price when hiring a landscaper, the ones with less training (and fewer overhead costs to cover) are often the ones quickly hired by an undiscerning homeowner. A trimmer who doesn’t have a contractor’s license becomes like an employee of the homeowner and is thus under the homeowner’s liability insurance should tragedy strike, Sevier says.

“If that person slips out of the tree, the homeowner has essentially bought the trimmer,” he says. “It’s a sad, sad deal.”

Since his first experience on the witness stand in 1979, some of Sevier’s cases have been local, San Diego accidents. Others have been in places like Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and Puerto Rico. He’s seen the gory photos of a trimmer’s arm amputated by a falling branch or of a bicycle wrecked by a tree slamming down across a bike lane.

That’s why he says heckling from disgruntled pedestrians is the least of his worries in this line of work. He’s seen photos and heard stories of the times when trimmers didn’t take the precautions they should have and wound up paralyzed or even dead. It’s sad, he says, how much of a need there is for an expert witness like himself.

“When you see the downside,” he says, “it really stops you from being a cocky urban lumberjack.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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