John Hagins of Gilroy shows two of the chainsaws he uses to cut down burning trees in fires throughout the state. He recently returned home from the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe. Photo: Tarmo Hannula
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Gilroy native John Hagins is a self-described “adrenaline junkie” who risks his life by charging into a burning forest to save others.

Hagins, the owner of Skylake Tree Service, is a tree faller with Cal Fire, playing an important role that not only stops the forward motion of the megafires scorching the state, but also protects those fighting the flames from serious injury and death.

Hagins recently returned home to Gilroy after a month battling the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe. The fire, which ignited Aug. 14, had ripped through 221,774 acres and was 76% contained as of Sept. 26.

He was joined only by his fellow tree faller Bradley Chilton and equipment tech CJ Wallace, working with Cal Fire crews to put the dangerous, hollowed-out trees on the ground to clear the way for firefighters to do their job and not have to worry about being crushed by the massive limbs.

“We don’t have badges and we’re not first responders, but we’re definitely in the mix of things,” Hagins said.

Hagins said the role of the tree faller is two-fold: create contingency lines by dropping the hazardous trees before the firefighters arrive, and assist with the mop-up efforts after the fire by clearing burned trees around residences to make the area safe for people to return.

But in this era of megafires, where California continues to burn in record-setting blazes annually, Hagins, who has worked as a tree faller for the last five years, said he’s certainly seen the situation turn dire.

John Hagins works to cut down a hollowed tree on treacherous terrain near Lake Tahoe. Photo courtesy of John Hagins

When he first started, Hagins said he might have been at a fire for a little more than a week. Now, in recent years, he’s away from home for 20 days or more as fires get more difficult to contain.

Tree mortality is “very bad right now,” Hagins said, primarily due to the ongoing drought statewide as well as an onslaught of tree-killing beetles.

At the Caldor Fire, the flames consistently barreled over the contingency lines, Hagins noted.

“We couldn’t get the lines fast enough to put the fire down,” he said. “We tried to get ahead of it and stop it, but it’s inevitable. These trees are so big.”

Hagins operates chainsaws with bars up to six feet in length, toppling trees, such as Jeffrey pines, ponderosas and red firs, that are 100 feet tall and roughly seven feet in width in some instances.

As an arborist, Hagins admits it’s difficult not only cutting down these massive trees, but seeing the centuries-old species be destroyed by fire.

But, when faced with these life-or-death situations, Hagins said he cannot stress safety enough. He added that the firefighters treat him and his crew “like rockstars,” respecting his judgment if he decides that a certain tree is too dangerous to attempt to chop down.

“Everything I do is about safety,” he said. “None of it is that important to the point where I have to put other people or myself in jeopardy. We want to come home with our hands and toes.”

Being a tree faller is probably one of the riskiest jobs during a fire, he said. But knowing that he is able to save lives with his work makes it all worth it.

“This is dangerous stuff,” Hagins said. “We’re not running from it, we’re going into the middle of it. And it’s burning. Hot.”

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.


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