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The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va., Rob Hedelt column

The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. — Rob Hedelt The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

March 14--Watching a member of his crew lop sections from a tall pine tree dangerously close to a camp building here at Prince William Forest Park, Mike Papa exudes nothing but calm.

But even he admits that the March nor'easter that toppled and tangled thousands of trees here created a special challenge for small army of park staffers and contractors working hard to clear the damage and ready the park to reopen.

"Like all the teams in here, we've been working from 7 in the morning until 6 at night to safely take down as many trees as we can in spots that look like battle zones," said Papa, the tree crew supervisor at Rock Creek Park when not on loan for storm recovery.

The former Stafford County resident who now lives in Woodbridge added: "At the end of these days, there's barely enough energy left to get home, grab a shower, eat and then tumble into bed."

Park officials were nice enough to give me and a photographer a tour at some of the most damaged parts of the park Tuesday, most in the western side of the 15,000-acre park along Mawavi Road, in Oak Ridge Campground and in areas designated as Camp 2 and Camp 5. Most of the park is in Prince William County, but it spills over into North Stafford.

Chris Alford, chief of education and interpretation for the park and one of its incident commanders, noted that the park shut down and staffers stayed away on Friday, March 2nd when the winds were at their worst.

When staffers arrived Saturday, it took a seven-person crew hours to cut through downed trees to get to a couple who live in a park residence.

"It was cutting tree after tree on Mawavi Road to get them out," said Alford. "There was one 300-yard section where approximately 100 trees were down across the road."

He noted that the park, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, suffered damage from the derecho of 2012 and from hurricanes Sandy, Isobel and Irene.

"But none of them did as much damage as this storm," he said. "Something about the winds on the 2nd of March changed the landscape here more than any other storm in recent times.

There are two ways to assess the damage that park officials quickly surveyed and prioritized for days and weeks of cleanup soon after the winds died down and enough trees were removed to provide workers access to the park.

One way to gauge the damage is to look at the number of trees down or considered hazardous to buildings or the public.

"Our assessment showed us that we have to remove from 1,400 to 1,500 trees to safely allow people back in the most heavily trafficked areas of the park," said Alford, noting that most of these are pines 65 feet tall and taller. "We're at about 850 as of today (Tuesday.) And beyond them, there will be other work to do after the park reopens."

Of course, those 1,500 trees are a fraction of all the trees that went down in the park, mostly pines with limited root systems that made them likely to topple in winds that topped 60 miles an hour.

The thousands of trees down in the woods will be left there unless they're found to pose a risk of some sort.

"We've got about 75 people taking down those identified trees," said Alford, 25 park staffers and 50 or so on loan from other parks in the National Capital Region and beyond. Distances traveled by those helpers range from the relatively short ride from Fredericksburg to the much longer trip from Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

Papa said that the crews that have come to help are glad to help out a sister park, most knowing that one day they might need the favor returned in their own parks.

A more immediate and visceral way to judge the damage is to simply walk through some of the hardest hit spots, like Camp 2 and sections of Mawavi Road.

In those spaces, stumps of trees taken down stick up in long rows and groupings like closely driven garden stakes, with uprooted root balls dotting the ground as well. In between sit piles and rows of branches, logs and more, like disheveled haystacks after a harvest.

To see what the area looked like before the crews blew though, simply look out into the woods and see more smashed and downed trees than you could ever count. It's what you imagine woods would look like after a wartime shelling.

Alford, who noted that park officials will make a call on when to reopen the park when areas used by the public are deemed fully safe, said the park will reuse every downed tree possible.

"We have an old, operating sawmill where we will use some of the trees to get lumber to make building repairs where necessary," said Alford, "and some trees will be made available for firewood. Chips and other materials will be used to make roads safer or returned for nutrients to the forest."

He noted that while some buildings in the park had trees lean or land on them, most were spared serious damage.

"Part of that is due to the quality construction the CCC crews used," he said. "They took pride in their work, using materials from the forest itself. Many of those original buildings are still in use today."

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