Autumnal struggle

The troops of Tree City USA battle a familiar foe, fallen but not yet defeated

Millions of leaves are blown into the gutters.

Millions of leaves are blown into the gutters.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It’s that time of year again. While cities such as New York and Chicago are gearing up for snow season, Sacramento is in the midst of battling leaves. Piles upon mountains of leaves are scattered across the city every autumn, blocking traffic, clogging drains and gutters, and taking up perfectly good parking spaces. This is a familiar scene in “Tree City USA,” as Sacramento was dubbed by The National Arbor Day Foundation. Hard to believe, but Sacramento is neck-and-neck with Paris when it comes to having the greatest density of trees. There are an estimated 1.7 million trees in Sacramento, according to Martin Fitch, superintendent of the Tree Services division of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. They drop many millions of leaves.

So during this season, against the landscape of our urban forest, you will see what appears to be a battlefield with troops and tanks fighting the formidable forces of fall.

It is dark and nippy at 6 a.m. when the troops are dispatched from the headquarters on Meadowview Road to their daily routes. They are an army of 34 city workers under normal conditions, but during the peak of the leaf season in November and December, manpower can top 40 people. These troops battle garden stuff all year long, but these days they are working a lot of overtime and weekends just trying to keep the leaves under control.

Unlike less tree-filled cities, where citizens are required to bag their green waste for weekly pickup, residents of Sacramento are allowed to just rake their leaves into piles in the street. Excessive leaf pile-ups not only cause flooding in many areas of the city, but they also pose a great nuisance to traffic, especially in the Downtown and Land Park areas, which are considered “hot spots” for garden refuse.

On San Jose and Broadway streets, Mark McFaydan is waiting for his partner Robert Saldivar to arrive for the start of their route in Oak Park. Saldivar is running a few minutes behind this morning due to a malfunctioning signal light on his equipment, which needed to be fixed.

McFaydan drives the huge “tank,” a rear-loader packer truck much like a garbage truck, and Saldivar operates the “claw.” You may have seen this nifty contraption roaming around your neighborhood gobbling up organic matter and dumping them into the tank, which then digests and compresses it.

Leaves are swept into piles to await city workers.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Some cities rely on mammoth sweepers to suck up their leaves, but this method just can’t handle Sacramento’s volume. According to Joel Castaneda, senior superintendent of garden refuse, the city collects anywhere from 75,000 to 80,000 tons of garden waste every year. In Sacramento, those who would combat the leaves need to be able to move quickly and work together to meet the challenge.

By the time the sun cracks open, the claw is crawling along at around 30 miles per hour, winking at traffic while making its way to McFaydan’s tank, the big mother ship. There’s a certain R2D2-C3PO duality to Saldivar and McFaydan. Where one goes, the other follows, looking out for each other.

“I’m constantly looking out for traffic,” says McFaydan. “You have to be each other’s second pair of eyes. It gets especially dangerous with rain.”

McFaydan’s truck usually parks at one end of the street, waiting hungrily for Saldivar’s claw to feed it. The claw scoots swiftly along the curbsides, backing in and out of tight parking areas, grabbing clawfuls of fallen foliage, broken branches and lawn clippings. It is amazing to see Saldivar work the claw as if it were his third arm. McFaydan usually stands by the rear of his truck, compressing the dumped material as streams of leaf juice spill out the side of the truck’s mouth.

A woman with a cigarette in her mouth stands on her front lawn watching the claw ravish through her pile of leaves. At the end of the street, another woman is feverishly raking her yard, building her pile, better late than never.

“You see, if more people did what this woman is doing, it would make our jobs that much easier,” McFaydan says of the woman raking away.

The war on leaves relies on the autumn alliance—the woman with her rake, the shopkeeper with his broom, the landscaping employees with their leaf blowers and city workers hauling away their piles. It takes a village to raze the leaves.

Mark McFaydan oversees the “claw” loading leaves into the “tank.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

On an average day, McFaydan and Saldivar will fill two truckloads of garden waste by the end of their route. The loads are then taken to one of three facilities—Waste Management Collection and Recycling, Grover Landscaping or the county of Sacramento transfer station—where the materials are eventually recycled to make landfill cover material, compost and leaf mulch: a natural, valuable nutrient supplement for garden and lawn applications.

McFaydan and Saldivar will cover about 23 miles today on this particular route. Altogether, the troops will conquer about 1,400 street miles within the Sacramento city limits in one week, according to Jack Wipf, a solid-waste supervisor who oversees routing. There are currently about 18 claws and 22 trucks out on the frontlines this season. Three or four extra “swing” trucks are also out there for backup to keep the claws busy while the regular trucks are doing their dumps.

“Because of the leaf season and because of the potential flooding, we also have to throw in the street sweepers to make sure the drains aren’t clogged and the leaves don’t go down the drain,” says Duffey. “It’s important that we tackle this from all aspects in terms of getting the leaves as fast as they fall, sweeping the gutters to make sure they don’t clog up any of the gutters or they’ll flood. So it’s a pretty intense process for our garden refuse guys.”

“Right now the biggest challenge is just to keep on schedule, try to finish the city in a week,” adds Castaneda.

The goal is to clean up the city before rain season hits during the January and February months. Of course, this doesn’t always happen.

“When they run behind, they make sure they go out to try and hit the problem spots,” he explains. “So that’s why they’re working almost 12-hour days and averaging a 60-hour work week.”

Both McFaydan and Saldivar say they enjoy the overtime during leaf season.

“I feel pretty secure with this line of work,” says McFaydan. “As long as there’s people, there’s garbage.”