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Protecting Trees From Lightning

A tall oak, felled by a quick flash of lightning, crushing homes and lives in one second of nature's fury, could be prevented with lightning protection, say tree advocates with Care of Trees, an organization that specializes in the protection for trees.

According to Craig Herwig, an arborist with Care of Trees, investing the money in lightning protection is worth it. Lightning protection for a tree is different than a house, where a lightning rod is used. For trees, a system of copper wires are laced in the top 10 feet of the tree and then anchored in the ground with a rod. The average cost is $1,200 - $5,000, Herwig said. A 250-year old tree is irreplaceable, and provides benefits to the property that affect the price of the house, Herwig said.

"It's a network of copper wires we put on the tree," Herwig said. "[Trees] certainly enhance the property. It's a good idea to pay attention to the trees in an urban environment."

Cutting down a damaged tree is not a cheap option though, Herwig said. An old tree, such as a White Oak he remembers from a Herndon property, could cost more to remove. While the homeowner was in the process of deciding whether to invest the money, the tree was struck by lightning.

"The cost of removing a tree of that size could be greatly more than putting in this system," Herwig said.

Care of Trees is one of the largest employee-owned arboriculture companies in the nation, with more than 20 offices and 350 arborists in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Herwig said regular tree maintenance is a part of the tree protection his company emphasizes.

"Trees that have historic value or are not replaceable, are typically trees we protect," Herwig said.

MIKE KNAPP, Fairfax County urban forester, is aware of the protection but said installing a lightning protection system on a tree is a two-edged sword.

"It's a practice that arborists are aware of," Knapp said, "once you install it you have to keep up with it."

Although the protection system was utilized by some homeowners organizations and historic groups, Knapp wasn't aware of it being used by any county facility.

"It's very expensive to do lightning protection. You have to have the resources to put it in to begin with and keep up with it," Knapp said.

One large tree with an extensive trunk that towers over a townhouse community off Old Centreville Road in Centreville is outfitted with a lightning protection system. Although the tree is not on park land, the landowners thought it was worth protecting. The tree is the namesake of the road as well, Giant Oak Court, and has wires coming down the trunk into the ground.

"They were able to preserve that tree," Knapp said.

A county champion Kentucky Coffee tree on county property was outfitted with a lightning protection system, said Ben Wharton, the Fairfax County Park Authority forestry crew manager.

"My crew has installed one system in a tree at Twin Lakes Golf Course, it's a county champion," Wharton said.

According to Wharton, there is a national registry of big trees, divided into county, state and national. This particular Kentucky Coffee tree is the biggest of it's kind in the county, making it a champion on the county level.

The tree at Twin Lakes is on a hill all by itself, making it a prime choice for lightning, Wharton said. Workers mounted a lightning rod on one of the tallest branches, and copper wires running down to the ground.

"You hope that when the lightning hits, it goes down into the ground," Wharton said.

At Wood Acres tree service in Kensington, Md., a majority of the work is tree removal from lightning strikes. Lightning protection is one service the company offers at Wood Acres. When a tree does get struck by lightning, the company recommends taking it down instead of waiting.

"The longer someone allows a dead tree standing, it gets more dangerous for climbers," she said.