Two Puget Sound cities. Two freak windstorms. Two families devastated by the loss of a father to a falling tree.
The parallels between the deaths of 36-year-old Jamie Fay in Gig Harbor last summer and 42-year-old Eric Medalle in Seattle last month are chilling. Each dad was taking a weekend drive with his young daughter. Each was struck by a wind-toppled Douglas fir, while the girl in the backseat escaped largely unscathed.
In each case, arborists later determined the tree that collapsed was rotten.
Both tragedies provide harsh reminders about humanity's unpredictable relationship with nature, and the fearsome power latent in these silent specimens. A tree, like a mountain lion, poses its greatest threat to people when it's sick or dying.
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Despite the similarities, the incidents differed in their settings. Medalle died at Seward Park, a South Seattle old-growth sanctuary. Fay was killed on busy Borgen Boulevard in fast-growing North Gig Harbor, where hundreds of trees recently had been removed.
The clearcut made way for Heron's Key, a senior community that will be the largest development in city history. Single-family subdivisions are also rising nearby.
Fay's death on Aug. 29 set off a chain reaction – some have said overreaction. Subsequent windstorms caused two more trees to crash down on the public right of way, though no one was harmed. The big surprise came early last month when a 50-foot buffer of firs was cleared along several blocks of Peacock Hill Avenue. The city said on its website that it agreed with the landowner, Olympic Property Group (OPG), to cut the trees out of “an abundance of caution” ahead of another predicted storm.
It was a curious decision because arborists had not identified the trees as hazards, unlike the dozen-plus hazardous trees that were taken down along nearby Borgen after Fay’s death.
The treescape has now turned into a moonscape, and neighbors don’t like it. They understandably lament the loss of vegetation that provided an aesthetic benefit, offered cover for wildlife, absorbed stormwater and filtered air and noise pollution.
They also might wonder if they’re seeing a domino effect of tree vulnerability – a phenomenon described in an urban tree risk management guide published by the U.S. Forest Service.
“Forest trees that have been in relatively protected and undisturbed environments for all of their lives become very vulnerable to exposure when these forests are urbanized, that is, when residential or commercial subdivisions are built in or around the forests,” the guide says.
“When you remove a large number of trees,” it continues, “you change the site conditions for the remaining trees. Sudden increases in amounts of sunlight and wind may shock trees.” The risk of wind collapse is magnified due to the “death of the shallow network of supportive, fine roots.”
Perhaps this is part of the price of growth on the Peninsula. While residents enjoy convenient shopping and access to state Route 16, they also must contend with increased traffic and overcrowded schools. The Peninsula Neighborhood Association saw this coming 20 years ago when it unsuccessfully challenged the city’s annexation of 796 acres on its northern doorstep.
OPG vice president John Chadwell said Monday that his company will replant the buffer this fall with trees better suited for the suburban environment, mostly red cedars and pines. The saplings won’t soon make anyone forget the towering firs, but they will return desperately needed foliage to the neighborhood.
Trees are sentinels for a community’s quality of life. Gig Harbor residents should stand up for smart tree policy – for instance, by watching in the months ahead as officials consider changes to the city’s tree-retention ordinance.
Responsive leaders will find a balance between economic development, public safety and natural beauty. Acting out of “an abundance of caution” should apply not just to protecting people, but also to preserving dwindling green space.