Thursday, April 21, 2005

300-year-old oak falls, twice

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 21, 2005): After weathering this winter's snow and wind storms, a 300-year-old oak tree just waking up for the spring fell across Holmes Road unexpectedly Tuesday morning, damaging a van and closing the road two separate times during the day.

The incident has prompted town officials to inspect and identify other old oaks that may need to be taken down.

At about 7:45 a.m., one large limb fell across the road, smashing the rear window of a passing van. “I just felt an impact,” said Scott Mincher, the van’s driver. “I looked in the mirror and my (rear) windshield was shattered.”

Mincher, who was unhurt, drove away and returned with a chainsaw to help clear the road. Onlookers and those who heard the story told him he should buy a lottery ticket.

While he was gone, a neighbor, Dan McMahan, had grabbed his own chainsaw and started work.

The drivers of other cars, who had to stop because the road was blocked, got out of their vehicles and helped, McMahan said. One person was driving a pickup truck. He swung around, attached a chain to his tow hitch and pulled one large section of the limb to the side of the road, where McMahan cut it up and with help was able to roll it into the ditch, clearing the roadway.

Hours later, a second, larger section came down, tearing off the side of the tree trunk and sending more branches flying across the road.

“It’s too bad it didn’t hit my truck,” said neighbor Arthur Gallant. His white Chevy pickup, on a rebuilt motor and transmission, was just a foot beyond the farthest branches.

“I wouldn’t have cried over that truck,” he said.

Gallant said he was surprised the tree picked a warm, windless day to fall apart, since it had already survived the heavy snows and high winds of this past winter. All the same, he knew it was an old tree, and “I’ve been eyeing it because I was afraid it would take the wires down.”

But when it fell, the limbs just rattled the wires and left them standing.

The tree was taken down later in the afternoon by Bartlett Tree Experts of Scarborough.

Tim Lindsay, a consulting arborist with the company, said the tree "failed" because of "a decay organism that was working very quickly within the tree."

He said fungi were rotting the tree from the inside out, which caused some limbs to appear normal from the outside, despite being discolored on the inside and far lighter than they should be, almost "like balsa wood."

The only way to discover the damage before a limb falls is to drill into the tree and inspect the wood that is removed.

The fungi "work very fast in degrading the wood in the fall of the year and the spring," Lindsay said.

That seasonal spurt, plus the tree's emergence from winter dormancy, led to the collapse. "The buds were swollen and they were ready to pop," Lindsay said. The weight of water now flowing up from the roots into the limbs of the tree overloaded the degraded wood, tearing the tree apart.

Lindsay said he and Public Works Director Mike Shaw will be on the lookout around town for other large oak trees that may be in similar straits and need to be tested.

Faye Holmes, who owns the house lot on which the tree sits, said she hoped other oaks on her property would be allowed to stand. The tree that fell Tuesday has “been in my father’s family for over 100 years,” she said, as part of what used to be Emerson Farm.

She was sad the broken tree had to come down. “The place won’t be the same without it.”