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Resident urges city to prevent tree tragedies

By Mary Spicuzza Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday January 17, 2002

Charles Smith insists he has nothing against trees. But when the long-time Berkeley resident pointed toward a set of towering eucalyptus at Indian Rock Park while sitting in his Berkeley hills home, he described the trees’ impending disasters. 

“People coming up the Indian Rock are all in danger,” Smith, a retired traffic engineer, said, citing a host of concerns about the trees. “That’s why I’m urging the State of California to have hazardous tree laws.” 

Smith said recent reports of several trees falling and hitting cars confirmed his growing fears that Berkeley is not doing enough to prevent tree tragedies. His proposed solution includes a new hazardous tree ordinance for the city, which he said should require removal of dangerous trees, better monitoring of “tall trees that could be hazardous,” and more education for land owners trying to decide which trees to plant on their properties. 

“Some of us believe all those eucs should be taken down,” Smith said.  

Despite Smith’s active lobbying, city employees have said they have no plans to pass any hazardous tree ordinance. And Jerry Koch, forestry supervisor for the city, said city staff don’t intend to remove any of the Indian Rock Park eucalyptus trees, nor do they want to tell people which trees to plant on private property. 

“We already manage our trees,” Koch said, adding that the city already has three ordinances that deals with trees. “If we knew of something that was going to fall and we were really concerned about it, we would contact the owner. But this often happens during storms, without advance warning.” 

Koch said he feels the existing tree-related ordinances, which regulate street trees, manage solar access and view disputes between neighbors, and regulate removal of coast live oaks, sufficiently handle Berkeley’s urban forestry issues. He added that while there has been a “little damage to some vehicles” this year, tree troubles have been mild compared to other years. For example, one storm during October, 2000, caused 400 “incidents,” according to the city forestry department. 

Koch said the city recently hired a consulting arborist to do an evaluation of one of the Indian Rock eucalyptus trees, due to complaints from Smith, and found no problems with it. 

Unlike Berkeley, Oakland does have a specific hazardous tree ordinance much like the one Smith is proposing, in addition to several other tree-related laws. Dan Gallagher, Oakland tree supervisor, said the hazardous tree ordinance has given those concerned about trees important legal rights, even if the perennial is on someone else’s property 

“You can’t prevent trees from falling,” Gallagher said. “But the hazardous tree ordinance was adopted to allow property owners to have a legal means to have hazardous trees removed.” 

He said this has helped those living near hazardous trees get them removed before they can fall and cause injury or damage. But Gallagher said city tree section employees does not serve as “free landscape architects” or tell people which trees to plant. Like Berkeley, they provide a list of suggestions including native and non-native species. 

Berkeley and Oakland employees and other tree specialists said experts sometimes have trouble predicting which trees are going to fall, mainly because many different factors can cause a tree to topple. 

“Trees are so designed that they don’t fall, but when we don’t grow them under natural conditions, they have problems with wind, excessively wet soil and poor pruning,” said Bob Raabe, a retired plant pathologist who still works at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint what causes a tree to fall. Sometimes a tree has just snapped. We don’t know why.” 

Current research led by specialists like Dr. Larry Costello and others at the UC Cooperative Extension program may help demystify falling trees. Costello organizes an annual California Tree Failure Report Program, a group of arborists and scientists who analyze why trees fall or become hazardous. The group met last Thursday. 

Each year the program examines case studies of tree failures, with hopes of understanding why some trees topple or break apart while others retain a strong structure. Costello said his group has a database detailing more than 33,000 failures, and may be the largest urban tree failure database in the world. 

“We use that information to analyze and ask questions,” Costello said. “It’s too difficult to generalize about the genera. You have to evaluate trees on a case-by-case basis.” 

For example, Costello said it isn’t fair to make sweeping generalizations about all eucalyptus being dangerous or having a “high-failure potential.” 

Still, Charles Smith has a stack of documents detailing the problems with eucalyptus trees and other examples of hazardous trees. And as a “newspaper junkie,” bibliographer, and pamphleteer, he is determined to gather information and continue distributing it to his neighbors and others in the community.  

He also sends all of the information he gathers about the potential hazards of planting the wrong tree in the wrong place to a legislative analyst in Sacramento, in case legislators decide to make hazardous tree ordinances a statewide issue. Currently, few cities have a hazardous tree ordinance. But Smith said cities like Berkeley need better guidelines than following the whims of “tree-huggers.” 

“I consider him (Jerry Koch) to be a tree-hugger,” Smith said, adding. “There are a lot of people that worship trees.”