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February 2, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

Who moved my tree?
Remember: If a tree falls on your house, God did it


The Weekley Wrap, photo of Perilous Plungers

 PERILOUS: The bride and groom walked the gangplank. They pawed nervously at their faces on occasion, then turned to smile bravely at the crowd. The rain fell. Out there, in that crowd, the people had umbrellas, sure footing, and -- at least to the public eye -- control of the situation. Maybe they'd already taken the plunge, sat in the honeymoon hot tub afterward, then retreated back to the observation deck to shiver in smug sympathy. Maybe they didn't intend, ever, to jump in that water, and just came to heckle or marvel at the fools inching down the gangplank to the edge.

The rain fell. The people under the umbrellas leaned forward, eyes gleaming. Many splashes preceded the bride and groom, more self-sacrificial plungers testing the waters. Some Fish and Game people, large fishes wedged onto their heads, walked just in front of the bride and groom. A clown -- much like the clown at the rodeo, waiting in the wings to distract the angry bull -- waited behind the bride and groom on the gangplank. He'd jump in after them, try to distract the sharks (or sleek territorial sea lions, although those bay dwellers seemed to be giving the waterfront a wide berth this Saturday morn).

And then, without even an "I do," someone tossed the bride over his shoulder and heaved her into the bay. The groom followed -- or did they jump together? It was hard to tell, back in the crowd, where kids played with umbrellas, dogs sat patiently and neighbors gossiped. The rain and the clouds rolled back into hesitant clumps on the near horizon and the sun peeked out.

They say it's good to get married in the rain, even better if the sun makes an appearance soon thereafter. But that's neither here nor there: This was the Perilous Plunge -- not a real wedding, silly -- a fundraiser for the Campfire USA and the Discovery Museum, and 150-plus characters cavorted around in the cold and wet before launching their charitable selves into the bay. And let's not forget the man paddling around in his Speedo for hours in the water while the people plunged, his skin turning red, ready to fish people out if they failed to surface. What was he, the preacher?


REGGAE EXPANSION: At a public hearing this Thursday, Feb. 2, before the Humboldt County Planning Commission, People Productions will explain why it wants to expand its Reggae on the River celebration in August onto 120 acres south of the present site, increase ticket sales from 8,500 to 12,000, and add another day of camping to the already three-day event. If the expansion is allowed, ROR could jump from 10,500 people skankin' on the riverbank to 14,400 (figuring in staff, performers and guests along with the ticket buyers). ROR organizers also want to have the conditional use permit under which all of these rules are detailed to be extended from 2007 to 2015.

But -- as reports from contentious meetings down in SoHum reveal -- some other people might rise before the commission to explain why they're a little concerned about the proposed expansion. According to a report in the Jan. 24 Redwood Times written by Mary Anderson, some residents of Piercy -- just over the border in Mendocino County, are worried that ROR's growth is both unchecked as well as congestion-causing. Anderson herself opined: "In the end, making Reggae work for everyone is an unachievable goal."

Carol Bruno, of People Productions, responded to that claim this Monday: "We're really working hard to make it work for everyone." She added: "We want to expand because we need to cover the [increased expenses from] inflation." The planning commission meets at 6 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors' chambers at the courthouse in Eureka and again on Feb. 16, same place same time, to consider the matter.


WATER SAY-SO: The California Supreme Court on Monday decided that the state and regional water boards do indeed have the authority to tell logging companies to monitor water quality in streams and rivers potentially affected by their timber harvesting.

The unanimous ruling upset the Pacific Lumber Company's last-ditch effort to dismiss the water boards as unessential, extraneous flies in the state agency ointment. Palco had sued the State Water Resources Control Board after the board ordered the company to monitor water quality, and remediate problems, in the South Fork Elk River, where erosion, landslides and heavy sediment loads in the watershed have been associated with past logging. Palco declared that the only authority it had to answer to was that of the California Department of Forestry, which regulates timber cutting under the Forest Practice Act. The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed that argument as "flawed" because part of the Forest Practice Act says that it doesn't limit another state agency from exercising its authority.

The Supreme Court ruling, the water board notes in a news release, extends beyond Humboldt County, and along with other recent victories in the water authority realm reaffirms the state's role in protecting California water.


EUREKA SKULLDUGGERY: A person walking through the softball fields at Cooper Gulch recreational area in Eureka discovered part of a skull at 4:30 p.m. on Monday. EPD, Eureka Volunteer Patrol, a police dog and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office divided the fields into three quadrants and combed the area searching for clues. Other bones were found, including some vertebrae, according to police. The Humboldt County Coroner's Office took possession of the remains Monday and a local anthropologist has also examined the bones. Coroner Frank Jager said Tuesday that from his preliminary examination, the skull appears to be that of a young Caucasian female, 25 to 35 years old or younger. Police recovered 75 percent of the skull, which, according to Jager, was "broken up pretty good." Jager also said that the bones appear to have been outdoors or buried in excess of one year, though they were not buried at Cooper's Gulch but placed there "by someone or something" more recently. An investigation is continuing.


SHANTY STABBING: A bar brawl nearly turned fatal after a bar patron was stabbed repeatedly in the torso and arms last Wednesday evening in Eureka. Matthew Eric Fordham, 25, of Eureka, was assaulted outside of the Shanty, an Old Town bar, following a verbal altercation with three men and one woman that took place in the back smoking area. Two people were sought by Eureka Police for questioning, and since the stabbing one person allegedly involved in the altercation, Katie Oswald, has been contacted by EPD. Also sought for questioning is a man who goes by the name of Ritchie Cunningham. Oswald, Cunningham and the other assailants were reportedly not regulars at the Shanty but were somehow known to the victim, though police said they were "not friends." Fordham was taken to the St. Joseph's hospital with major injuries. Anyone with information should call Detective Neil Hubbard at 441-4300.


STRIKE TWO: On Monday, the Journal received letters from Marie Maloney and Naomi Steinberg, two people mentioned in the Trinidad Police Department's reports on the Richard Salzman false-name investigation (see "The final Salzman tally?" Jan. 26). TPD Chief Ken Thrailkill had written in his report that Salzman appeared to use Maloney's and Steinberg's names as two aliases in his letter-to-the-editor campaigns; Maloney and Steinberg wrote the Journal to say that it wasn't so.

The Journal called back to each of the women, and the ensuing conversations re-proved something we already knew: Journal readers are the smartest people around, and among the most gracious. As the Journal pointed out last week, the only evidence that the TPD appeared to have was that Salzman had letters-to-the-editor written under their names stored on his computer. Maloney wasn't sure if that was even the case -- she said that conversations with Thrailkill after the fact seemed to indicate that what was stored on the computer were e-mails to county supervisors that she may have cc:'d Salzman on.

Both Maloney and Steinberg wondered why the Journal would have printed something on such seemingly shaky evidence, and we had long, interesting and civil conversations -- agreeing to disagree, at times. The nut of the Journal's argument was that we were reporting on the contents of the police report, which did contain incontrovertible evidence that the Salzman letter campaign was more widespread and of longer vintage than was previously known, and that one of his computers went missing shortly after the investigation began. The evidence was much shakier in some instances than others, and we did our best to make clear when it was.

Steinberg did make a point that we take to heart, though -- that our use of the phrase "did not return a phone call seeking comment" in reference to our attempt to reach her for last week's story was perhaps off the mark. As it happened, she was out of town when we placed the call and ill after she returned. Though we couldn't have known that at the time, we do know Steinberg, and we should have known that she'd be about the last person you'd expect to duck a call, no matter how tough the questions. In this case, another of journalism's stock phrases -- "could not be reached for comment" -- would have been more appropriate.




photo of Raymond FagotWho moved my tree?
Remember: If a tree falls on your house, God did it

story and photos by HELEN SANDERSON

Raymond Fagot (left) trudged toward the fallen Monterey pine that stretched across the edge of his one- and-a-half-acre property in Arcata Friday afternoon. His size 13 black rubber boots squished along the sodden ground as he neared the tree, with its grassy, uprooted base protruding skyward from where it stood in his neighbor's yard for more than 40 years. The 80-foot pine was on its side, a small wooden fence crushed beneath it.

As he sloshed through the wet grass, the retired 59-year-old apologized for the soggy state of the ground, explaining that the Sunny Brae hillside near his place, where he's lived since 1967, slopes in such a way that a pool forms in this part of the property. A while back, he considered digging a ditch to divert some of the runoff into a nearby creek but, he said, you can't do things like that nowadays.

Fagot seems like an industrious type, a do-it-yourself sort with jalopy trucks awaiting repair in the driveway. He's also the kind of guy who does things by the book. It could be that his follow-the-rules attitude is a testament to his former career as a police sergeant for Humboldt State University where, for a time, he trained staff in emergency preparedness and equipment maintenance.

photo of fallen pine treeSo when that pine tree crashed into his yard during the New Year's storm, it wasn't long before he was on the phone with his insurance agent to find out what should be done. Since Fagot reads all of his (boring) insurance policy mail and even has a Nolo Press book on "neighborhood law" that he consults from time to time, he already knew what his agent told him -- that his neighbor was not liable for the downed tree. From an insurer's standpoint, the storm and resulting damage was "an act of God," meaning it was a force of nature; it was no one's fault, and therefore insurers aren't financially liable for damage to other people's property.

"That's the way the law is. Some people assume there should be responsibility on the person who owns the tree," Fagot said. "It's just the way the wind blows."

Instead, the burden of removing the arboreal mess is on Fagot, whose yard is far more compromised than his neighbor's. But it could have been worse -- the tree missed a nearby rental he owns. He estimates it might cost around $1,500 to get the thing chopped up and hauled off by a professional. He decided not to file an insurance claim, because he heard a few years back that if you are a "chronic filer" with your insurance company, you might be denied a policy with other insurers in the future.

But it's not the money that's bothering him, anyway. He's not even mad at his neighbor -- nor at God, for that matter. Fagot just wishes more people realized that when a natural disaster occurs it is too late to remove any unstable trees or structures that might crash into your yard and subsequently drain your wallet. He wants to use his own entanglement with the Monterey pine, which is still lying in his yard a month later, as an example for other homeowners who might find themselves in a worse situation.

Fagot's State Farm agent, John "Grondo" Grondalski, said that since the New Year's storm he's had to deliver disappointing news -- that their neighbor doesn't have to pay for any damage -- to clients with a similar state of affairs as Fagot.

"The neighbor didn't cause the tree to fall, nature did," Grondalski explained during a call from his Arcata office. "So the insurance industry, a long time ago, just decided, hey, when it's an act of God, whatever falls in my yard my insurance covers and whatever's in your yard your insurance covers. So if [a tree] smashes your garage and then continues across the driveway and smashes my car, your insurance covers your garage and my insurance covers my car."

Something both Fagot and Grondalski pointed out, however, is that you, the homeowner, can protect yourself from your neighbor's tumbling trees by checking around your property for those leaning or decaying trees and structures that might blow over in a strong wind.

"Look at the ground around [the tree]," Grondo suggested, "and if it looks like it might be pulling up a little bit the best thing to do is to write a letter -- and get it certified -- that says: I'm concerned about that redwood tree and please take care of it before it causes any damage."

At that point, it would be up to the property owner to take down the tree. And if it were to someday fall, the neighbor and their insurance company would be responsible for any damage to your place.

Another thing to watch out for, Grondalski said, are "widow-makers," loose limbs in redwood trees that might plummet to the ground and thump an unlucky person below, thus making their significant-other a widow. It's a logging term.

Fagot never considered that that particular tree would go down. It appeared healthy (though he thought it was nevertheless unattractive) so the certified letter rigmarole wouldn't have done him any good.

His neighbor, Deva Wheeler, said that she too, never imagined the tree would fall, and that even after it crashed into Fagot's backyard, she wasn't aware of the rules that applied to the "act of God" insurance situation.

"In fact," Wheeler said, "we never considered it would be our neighbor's responsibility at all; we thought it was ours. It was [Fagot] who actually pointed it out. He seems committed to doing things by the book and he said, `No, no, I'll deal with what's on my side of the fence.' So we said, `OK.'"

Her insurance will pay for the wrecked fence, she said, and she's lined up someone to cut the tree on her side, but he's been backed up with other jobs since the storm. Meanwhile, there are no more large trees on Wheeler's property -- just some small hardwoods, she said.

"If there were large trees I probably would be worried about it and I might just want to take them down," she said.

As for Fagot, he's actually happy that the old Monterey Pine went down: Now he has a view of Arcata Bay from his kitchen window. Besides, having professionals cut a standing tree down would have cost more money than he's paying now -- at most $8,000, he estimates. So, in this case, God did him a favor. But again, he thinks the whole mishap serves as an example, to take care of suspect trees before they crash into your yard or make a widow out of someone.



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