WINSLOW — Jason Fitch trained his chainsaw on a large ash tree Wednesday morning, making strategic incisions as his father prodded it forward with a long pole.

The tall tree soon came crashing down on the slope overlooking the Sebasticook River, leaving behind its stump and relieving its root system of top-heavy weight.

As he felled oak, ash and birch trees, Fitch said he hoped the strategic tree-cutting would achieve its intended purpose: help stabilize the riverside slope and ward against the town having to relocate a dozen nearby gravesites at Fort Hill Cemetery.

Municipal officials have been concerned about the historic cemetery ever since a big landslide in March 2010 at the cemetery’s edge created a small island of trees and debris in the river.

Walking around the slope’s edge, Fitch said it appeared to him as though some of the remaining soil had recently been moving. That trend would only continue if an unstable tree fell over on its own, he said.

“The roots will pull more of the embankment away,” Fitch said. “The problem is, when it blows over, it’s going to take the topsoil stuff with it also.”

Fitch and his father, Tuck, own J&L Tree Service, and they were hired by the town government for about $200 to clear out the area of certain selected trees. Local engineer Peter Newkirk provided the town with a plan to cut down 15 trees on the cemetery slope to reduce the risk of more slope failures.

Town Manager Michael Heavener said Wednesday the removal of the trees is the first step of a stabilization plan.

“The trees were removed because of their weight and the destabilizing influence they have on the slope during periods of strong winds,” Heavener said. “We now intend to find and plant vegetation that will help prevent further erosion on the slope.”

Fitch said he also expected rebar steel stakes to be placed in the ground later to keep track of any ground movement. He left the felled trees and cut brush there to help reinforce the slope. In addition, leaving the cut tree stumps in place so the root systems could remain healthy and intact, holding the slope together.

The effort is part of a plan to try to stabilize the slope and avoid the costly and complicated option of moving remains near the troubled slope. Heavener has said the town could move quickly to have the dozen endangered grave sites relocated if there were signs the upper portion of the slope would slide.

The Fort Hill Cemetery was created behind the former Fort Halifax and has more than 200 gravestones, some dating back to the mid-1700s. The graves atop the slope were undisturbed by the March 2010 landslide.

Florida Power & Light Energy, owners of the former Fort Halifax dam, commissioned a study that concluded the slope crumbled because of unusually heavy rain, unstable soil conditions and a small earthquake 41 miles away. The study said the company’s removal of the nearby dam in 2008 didn’t play a significant role.

Town and state officials have disagreed with those conclusions and asked the energy company to contribute to the stabilization efforts, but the company has declined to do so. As a result, town officials have opted to move forward with less costly options of stabilizing the slope.

“All of these measures are intended to help us avoid having to move any of the gravesites,” Heavener said. “We will, of course, continue monitoring the slope for any movement.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

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