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Recovery: Back From The Brink (Part 2)

Dan Kuny went to work in the woods as a high school kid, and he's been out there ever since. A Mendocino County native, Kuny, 61, is well known throughout the County, both as a veteran logger who has worked the forests from Gualala to Covelo, and as a football coach here in Boonville. Kuny has also worked all over the state when called upon by CalFire to clear trees in the path of wildfires, such as the terrible fires that did so much damage to Lake County last year. He also is much in demand outside the county where, in the Sierra foothills, he was working when he was nearly killed. At 61, he's as fit as a teenager. "I can't wait to get back out there," he says. This is Part 2 of his account of the incident (as told to Bruce Anderson)...

On Friday after the accident, while I was in the Modesto hospital, our insurance agent told us they had found a place for me to go for physical therapy. It's a nice place, they said, just down the road a few miles, so I would be leaving the Modesto Hospital (where they operated on my crushed ankle) the next morning, Saturday morning. They picked me up in an ambulance, loaded me up and took me down the road to this rehab place.

Just last week somebody from there called me and asked me for my opinion about it. That was a mistake. They probably wish they hadn't called me because I did not give them much of a reference.

They told me I needed to get going and get moving. I was in no shape to do that. It was only five days after the accident. I could barely move my shoulder. My hand was still swollen and I couldn't do anything with it. Plus I had the broken vertebraes and the broken ribs. So it was hard for me to even roll over. But they wanted me to do physical therapy?

They wheeled me into an open room. There were curtains on both sides. On one side a guy seemed to be on methamphetamine. Very spun out. He was yelling and screaming at the nurse. She finally quit trying to do anything with him and just left. He just kept on shouting as loud as he could. Then I looked over to the other side and it looked like somebody had shit on the floor and they just sort of wiped it down. It really stunk. Very bad. It was probably 90 degrees in there. No air-conditioning.

Tammy walked in and immediately said, 'You are not staying here.'

The nurse must have heard Tammy say that because within five minutes she came in with a form that I had to sign saying I was leaving against doctor’s orders. My wife said, 'Good,' she’d go get the car. The nurse pushed a wheelchair into the room next to the bed and said, 'Get in the wheelchair.' I said, 'I can't.' She repeated, 'Get in the wheelchair.' And she walked off. It was all I could do to get in the damn wheelchair. I finally got in it. She came back in and rolled me right out of the room. I said, 'Hey — I need to get some meds before I go to another hospital.' But she ignored me and just rolled me out through the door and parked me on the sidewalk and said, 'Good luck.' She left me right there on the sidewalk.

Tammy picked me up from the sidewalk. I was just sitting there in pain where the nurse dumped me. The rest of my family helped me get in the car.

To be honest, I think the way they treated me at the rehab place was worse than the way that tree treated me. I don't remember much about the trip to Ukiah now. I was in so much pain. Nothing helped. That was a long ride, a very long ride.

So we set out to Ukiah — this was only five or six days after my injury. We stopped at a rest stop for some food and drink, and while Tammy was inside I had to pee. I opened the door and literally fell out on to the ground on my side and peed right on the pavement.  Tammy came back and asked me what I was doing there. I said it was either pee on the ground or pee in the car, and I did not want to pee in the car. I should have been in an ambulance.

I was almost flat on the floor of the car and I hurt very bad. I had no pain meds, none. I didn't get any when I left the Modesto hospital. I thought I would get some at the rehab place, but they refused to give me any pain meds there. They told me I had to go back to the hospital for meds.

We finally got to Ukiah and I went straight to the emergency room. Tammy went in and they gave her a wheelchair.  I tried to unbuckle the seatbelt but I couldn't reach anything because my arm would not move and my ribs hurt. A security guy came out with the wheelchair. He did not know how bad my condition was, so he just reached in and grabbed me and pulled me out of the car. I screamed, ‘Hey! Easy! What are you fucking doing? My ribs are broken!"

Oh I didn't know! Sorry!

I told him, I know, I know! But easy!

They finally got me inside and got me to a bed and gave me some meds. Finally.

I was in the Ukiah hospital for six more days. First they x-rayed my shoulder. They thought my shoulder was broken. They thought my hand was broken too because it was so swollen. Then they figured out that the shoulder was out of its socket. Somehow, some way it kind of popped back in. I don't know how that happened. It still hangs up a little bit. It's still sore. But overall, the Ukiah hospital was excellent. Everyone there took good care of me.

The Modesto hospital at least sent down the MRI scans and medical records. In Ukiah, they put me on an IV and started the pain meds. So I went to sleep on a Saturday afternoon and woke up Monday morning.

Being over here close to home was good for me. The third night I was there I woke up screaming and they took me back in and took another set of x-rays to make sure there was no blood clot that might move to my heart or my brain. They told me things like that could happen. I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know where I was. I was just screaming. They said, You might have had a little clot go through, we're not sure. So they gave me some blood thinner. I've had friends who died from blood clots.

I've already said I went to work in the woods when I was a young kid. I worked with my dad for several years, then Harvey Isabel, he was the number one cutter for the Union Lumber Company for 18 years — all old-growth timber. I worked with my uncle Jimmy from Comptche. I have worked with the best of the best. I knew I was going to be a faller from age 12 when I first started bucking logs and cutting limbs off trees for my dad. He bought me a Homelite saw with a big 27 inch bar. That's what I started with.

I've had my share of injuries. My shoulder was just about torn off once when a widow-maker limb came out of a tree and hit me. I’ve had major cuts. I got a saw stuck in my neck once, still have scars from that. In that case, I slipped off a tree while I was packing my saw on my shoulder and I fell and landed on my saw and it went in my neck. That was not good. I finally pulled it out and it started spurting blood. I somehow got myself to a hospital where they took x-rays and saw that I just barely missed my jugular vein. That was four years ago.

When I think back over this latest accident, I realize I should have cut that oak that the tree was hung in before moving to the next one. But at the time I thought it was secure because I've done it hundreds of times before. What caused this injury was that when I'm at work here I never relax until I'm in my pickup because it's so obviously dangerous and the ground is so bad here. But that day, the cleared ground from the fire there made things seem so easy…

There's no timber here in Mendocino County anymore, it's junk. Easy to work with, not heavy enough to worry about. But you are on your toes the whole time because the ground is uneven, uphill, downhill. But there in the Sierras, the ground is like a parking lot, all the brush was burnt in the big Butte Fire last year. And I relaxed, I forgot about the tree that was hung up when I went to the other one. I did everything right, I stepped away from the tree I was working on, I thought everything was safe — but it wasn't.

Locally, I don't think MRC has that much wood left. Maybe seven years if they're lucky. There's just no timber left out there in this area, you know: timber timber. If you cut a redwood that's only 16 feet tall and 16 inches around there’s no wood there. Why cut that? I don't understand why they log those trees. We were visiting out at Orr Springs recently with some friends. There used to be some timber out there. There are areas there that have been cut five times or six times in the last 20 years. It's really hammered. L-P butchered it and then MRC came in and dropped a bomb on it, pretty much. Whoever's setting up these logging plans has no common sense. If you look at all those areas that they hacked and squirted, it’s very dangerous. The houses up above it near the ridges on some of that private property— if a fire ever starts down near the river, they are screwed. It will not quit till it hits Elk. No roads will stop that fire. All the dry brush, all the hack and squirted hardwoods and all the years of logging — they will never get that fire out. The right wind, the right humidity — and it's overdue, not much has burned lately. Masonite country: the same way: they will never put it out until it burns 20,000 acres or more, burns everything.

I guess it's true that over time the fire risk would be reduced if they end up with more large redwoods and firs.  I don't understand why they don't have more firewood cutters out there. They could log all the oaks and madrones that way. Some people say there's not enough of a market for that much firewood, but there's got to be a place for it.

I started falling trees on my own when I was 16. The big ones. I knew I could make more money if I was falling trees rather than just helping my father. I told my dad, 'Listen: I think we need to split this work — without me, you would not make the money you're making.'

My dad replied, 'Yeah, but you are living in my house.'

I told him I understood that. But that's not a great deal. I think I'll go out on my own, so I started on my own at 16 years old. I did not cut real big trees at first. So I would still go out to work with him. But I would do my own cutting. He still did the real big ones and I would still work behind him. This was out at Big River around 1970. In those days the saws were much bigger and heavier and you had to work slower. I had graduated to a much bigger Homelite saw with a six-foot bar that weighed about 90 pounds. And I weighed about 130 pounds.

I set chokers in the early days. I worked on the landings. I've run skidder a little bit. My dad pushed me to run cat but I said no. I did not want to do that. My job pays the most in the logging industry — except for the guy who owns the outfit. [Laughs.] In Mendocino County I'm paid by the thousand board feet. Up there in the Sierras I’m paid by the hour.

There is an art to falling trees. Many factors have to be accounted for: wind, slope, branches, other trees, angles, terrain— you get to the point where you do it without thinking. My dad always told me, 'If you look at a tree your first impression is the best. If you look at it again and walk around you will screw up: you start second-guessing yourself. The way to do it is to look at it right the first time and see where it's going to fall and do it.'

People tell me that logging is hard work, and it can be. But it's not really hard if you know what you're doing. I couldn't build a house — that's easy work for the guys who are good at it.

There's not many people who do actual falling anymore, especially up there in the Sierras where the trees are small. They do a lot of mechanical cutting of the smaller trees. And they have other machines that drag them back to the landing and feed the whole tree into a processor — zip, zip, zip. 32 inches, 26 inches (circumference) — machines do all the work. The old guys there got paid by the thousand back in the 80s and made good money. Then they decided to pay the cutters by the hour. And the old guys said, 'You can't tell me how much I can make in a day,' and they quit. So there are not very many timber fallers there anymore. They were paying us $120 an hour to cut up there, but most of it was burned hardwoods from the recent fires.

My crew is just the three of us: me, Jeff Cogburn and Roger Wilson. I'm not in charge, everyone is paid the same. They call me up and tell me the rate they’d pay and we decided we’d do it. We work six hour days, usually starting at 5:30 and you're out by 11:30. About $700 a day or so. We work hard straight through. You have to work hard and carefully and accurately and not damage the trees.

In the 15 minutes before the accident, I had about eight trees down and worked up. I decide which trees to cut, basically a clear-cut. It's all burned and it all has to come down. The tree that hit me was the ninth tree I cut that day. We were averaging 125-130 trees a day in six hours, each. Sometimes we took a log off, sometimes not. 90% of it is pine trees, some cedar and some fir. There's not much regrowth there yet. But the area we worked in 2015 is already showing signs of regrowth everywhere. And they will go back in and replant.

The area we were in when I got hurt was at about 2300 feet elevation. The other job we recently worked was about 5000 feet. It really kicks your ass because the air is thinner. Takes about a week or so to get used to it. But once you do then you go.

The trees we were cutting were not badly damaged, just burned on the outside. But if they don't get them now, within a year they will be gone because the bugs will get them. Bugs go through pine timber pretty fast when it's burned or dead. After a year, there's no value left. It's unbelievable how much is burned up there — mile after mile.

This forest we were in was about 76,000 acres — a lot of timber in that, a lot of it will never be cut. There's thousands more acres that have trees that are dying due to the drought and the bugs. You look at some of those areas and you might think it's a fire, but it's the bugs that have attacked the very dry trees. The Forest Service just doesn't care. They think they should just let mother nature take its course. But she won't. There will be a big fire in there and it will burn clear to Nevada.

People ask me how I’d compare the standing dead timber there in the Sierras to the hack-and-squirt dead trees around here. It's worse up there. The trees are much bigger, much more fuel. Ten times, 100 times worse. This is bad, but that's a disaster in the making up there.

I’ve worked in just about every forest in Mendocino County. And all over Northern California: Calaveras County, Placer County, El Dorado County. Typically about seven months a year in the forest. Some years I’ve worked all year. Last year I worked at the Valley Fire in Lake County all winter. Similar conditions. A crew from Anderson Valley is over there logging it right now. It looks good. I'm glad they are taking that now because in a year or so it won't be worth taking. The trees will all be dead. That's all Forest Service land.

In our line of work, sooner or later, you will get knocked down and something will be broke — if it doesn't kill you. Someone must be looking after me because I've been doing this for 47 years and I've certainly had my bumps and bruises.

But this one, the last two minutes under that tree, I had already decided I was a goner before Jeff found me, I was sure I was done. They were going to find me right there under that tree, dead. I could not breathe anymore. My lungs were done. If it wasn't for the tree laying on that saw I would have died before Jeff found me.

Kuny & Grandson
Kuny & Grandson

It was such a relief when he cut that top off me. I got that first breath. Those guys were not experts or anything, but they kept me alive. When you are laying there knowing you are going to die the things that go through your mind are some of the weirdest and dumbest and stupidest things. It's all about your family. What should I have done? Blaming myself for not doing things. Why was I doing this? Why didn't I stay home? Would my son be alive if I had stayed home? Lots of things that had nothing to do with my situation. Things your mind normally doesn't think about. But laying there alone, I came to the point that I knew they would not find me and I would be gone, dead right there. I wasn't even hurting at that time. I couldn't feel any pain. I was in shock, but I was going, fading.

We are left with a ton of medical bills. The insurance came through and will pay quite a bit including the helicopter bill. That was a good thing. We got the Modesto hospital bill, but none of the doctor bills yet. The Modesto hospital bill was $216,000. I was there for five days! And the leg surgery was there. Somehow they knocked over $100,000 off of it, so that brought it down some. We don’t have the bill from the Ukiah Hospital yet either. It takes a long time.

Lots of people have donated with our fundraising. Almost $9,000 so far. So everything the insurance does not pay, it will all go to that when we figure out what the insurance situation is at the end. We will pay it all eventually. What are they going to do? Come and get me? I'll be back to work pretty soon, earning money again. It happens in my business.

I'm not going to retire at 62. I can't stop myself. I can't change the way I work. I have to do what I always do. My relationship with my family will get closer, for sure, but I'm not going to change the way I work. Once I start back to work I will forget this. I can't go out there thinking about this all the time or I will get nothing done.

I've seen a lot of things out there. The pot growers have done some things in the woods that are just unbelievable. The amount of trash — batteries, gas cans, pesticides, garbage. Mostly trespass grows. I've seen guys on the job literally stand on limbs that they were cutting off and then fall and injure themselves. One guy did that and wasn't even injured.

One time I was standing on the end of a log and Jeff cut down another one and it hit the end of the tree I was on and threw me up in the air maybe 30 feet like a big teeter-totter. I couldn't believe it would hit the end of that tree. Got some bumps and bruises out of that.

Another time a guy was debarking a tree and the bark was so heavy that he didn't realize it and the disturbance caused the whole skin of the bark of the tree to slide down and it buried him and killed him on the spot. My father said he never did that kind of debarking. I never forgot that. I would never cut a tree that way.

I'm sure that if I had been working with anyone besides Jeff last May I would have died out there that day because only Jeff would have realized something was wrong. He knows my way of working and he knew something was wrong. If it wasn't for him, I would not be here today.

The next time you take a step on your nice redwood deck think of us. It's easy to forget what goes into producing that nice redwood deck that you walk on.

I guess if I sat around and thought about all the hazards in this line of work I might not do it. But I don't think that way. It's part of the job. Either you get beat up like I did, or you die. That's the way it is. And in my case, I did not die. I'm still here. I'm not dead. When I get back to work, what happened is behind me — lesson learned.

(Dan Kuny went back to work at 5am Monday morning.)

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