A tree that fell and killed a Gig Harbor man during an unseasonably strong windstorm last weekend was one of several Douglas firs left standing on the edge of a recent clear-cut done to make way for the biggest development in Gig Harbor history.
But city of Gig Harbor officials and a spokeswoman for the developer said this week they don’t believe any work done on the site for the Heron’s Key retirement community contributed to the tree falling.
“I don’t see any connection between what the city did or Heron’s Key did that led to this,” said City Administrator Ron Williams.
City officials said there are no plans to investigate what, other than the wind, could have weakened the tree that crashed through a chain-link fence onto Borgen Boulevard.
“It’s just a terrible tragedy,” Williams said. “It just breaks our hearts that someone lost their life.”
Jamie Fay, 36, was driving east on Borgen between the Olympus Way roundabout and the Peacock Hill roundabout when the tree fell. Fay had just left Costco with his 3-year-old daughter. The girl was not injured.
The removal of trees along Borgen began in mid-August on just under 18 acres that will hold Heron’s Key, a senior-living community scheduled to open in 2017.
The city granted clearing and grading permits this summer to developer Emerald Communities, the nonprofit that’s building Heron’s Key. Site preparation is underway for the first phase of the senior-living campus.
When the city approved the project, it required the developer to keep 20 percent of the trees and natural vegetation on the land. Development plans show a 50-foot vegetative buffer around the property line, including the border with Borgen.
A city planner walked the property with the developer and a certified arborist before clearing began, as required by city code, said Gig Harbor planning director Jennifer Kester.
City code prohibits work within a tree’s drip line, or the area on the ground around the tree where it receives most of its rain water.
The city doesn’t determine which trees remain on a development site; Kester said the developer is responsible for hiring a certified arborist.
Emerald Communities had an arborist on-site Monday to inspect the remaining trees to make sure they weren’t damaged by the storm, said Jennifer Whittle, spokeswoman with Lavidge, the public relations firm representing Heron’s Key.
The trees that were removed were cut down in accordance with city permits, Whittle said.
The private developer had people there over the weekend after the tree fell. Whittle said nothing was done improperly to lead to the tree falling, but she did not provide details about how that conclusion was reached.
A forestry professor at the University of Washington told The News Tribune on Tuesday that a combination of factors likely contributed to the tragedy.
Sustained high winds, quickly changing soil conditions, a shallow root base and clear-cutting are all factors that can make a tree fall, said Robert Edmonds, professor emeritus at the UW’s school of environmental and forest sciences.
“It was sort of like a perfect storm scenario,” Edmonds said. “If we had smaller wind speeds, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
The National Weather Service said wind gusts reached 40 mph along Interstate 5 and 70 mph on the coast.
Edmonds said prolonged dry soil conditions this spring and summer, followed by the blast of rain that accompanied Saturday’s windstorm, may have weakened the tree’s already shallow roots.
The recent clear-cut could have exacerbated the bad conditions, he said.
“Trees just don’t like to be exposed all of the sudden,” said Edmonds, who specializes in forest ecology and pathology.
Trees adapt to high-wind situations over time by growing more wood, making them stronger, he said.
Heron’s Key is the latest chapter in the development of the north Gig Harbor area that was blanketed by forest before the city annexed it in 1997. Largely owned by timber company Pope Resources, the land has gradually been sold off to commercial and residential developers. The master-planned Harbor Hill community includes a Costco, YMCA and several neighborhoods that are now being developed.