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January 13, 2006

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Publication Date: Friday, January 13, 2006

450-year-old oak tree falls, just missing sleeping neighbor 450-year-old oak tree falls, just missing sleeping neighbor (January 13, 2006)

Accident sends warning to others with large, old trees

by Jeb Bing

An 80-foot-tall Live Oak tree, estimated to be 450 years old, crashed to the ground behind homes on Muirwood and Hillview courts early last Friday, ripping apart part of one home and possible damaging others. Besides shattering a neighborhood that was mostly still sleeping at 5:38 a.m. at the start of a clear, dry day, the felled tree also sent out warnings to others in Pleasanton who may have large old trees near their homes.

The tree, always part of the backyard landscape of Sue and Robert Usedom on Muirwood Court, clipped the back side of a one story home that fronts on Hillview Court, owned by Simone and Nick Kaplanis. The massive tree, with a trunk estimated at six to eight feet in diameter, came crashing down less than five feet from the rear roof line, with its branches ripping out much of a corner just three feet from where Nick Kaplanis was sleeping. His wife was in the garage feeding a cat when the accident occurred.

No one was injured in the mishap.

The cause of the tree's fall is not known, although it was buffeted by high winds and heavy rains during the recent holiday weeks. Mike Fulford, City Landscaper, said he has not yet examined the tree, but it's possible that it was diseased and had a gradually weakening root structure.

"It's not an uncommon problem for oaks that over the years have found themselves surrounded by homes and irrigation systems that keep them overly watered," he said.

A neighbor of the Usedoms, Mary Lu Campbell, Executive Assistant to City Manager Nelson Fialho, said she and her husband Dean were awakened by the extraordinary rushing and crashing sounds the tree made on its way down.

"I've never heard a sound like that," she said. "We have a 100-foot-tall Redwood tree in another neighbor's yard that's worried me, but a sturdy oak like that one, never."

Police and the fire department were on the scene within minutes, followed by Pleasanton's Chief Building Official and Safety Official George Thomas. Together, they helped secure the Kaplanis' bedroom, including a bedroom closet that was ripped open when the tree fell.

"These people were really lucky that the tree trunk itself missed the house," Thomas said. "Just the weight of the falling branches broke the home's structural walls and probably cracked part of its foundation. Across the yard, the gaping hole left by the uprooted trunk actually caused a kind of "lift" that may have caused some of its large root structure to damage other homes as well. One patio was shattered completely as if it was a plate of glass."

The Usedoms have already called in a tree removal firm from Oregon to start the removal process of the fallen tree, which weighs an estimated 72-100 tons. The work will likely be handled by a large crane capable of lifting the heavy broken sections of the tree over the rooftops of several houses and onto Hillview Court, where crews will then use chainsaws to break the tree up into smaller sections to cart away.
How to protect your oak tree and keep it from falling

Last week's uprooting of an old oak tree that might be as old as 450 years sends notice to all businesses and homeowners who might have large, tall trees near their buildings to have a qualified arborist or landscaper check their tree's condition.

Mike Fulford, the City Landscaper for Pleasanton, said Live Oaks, Black Oaks, Valley Oaks and Blue Oaks are common trees in this area, but the larger, older ones are most susceptible to disease.

"The old oaks date back usually 200 years or more before the Spaniards started farming and grazing the land that's now the Tri-Valley," Fulford said. "Few oaks grew after that time until the cities started developing and ending the ranches and grazing. Cattle, especially, like the taste of oaks, so small trees just starting to grow were quickly eaten. The younger oaks we have now in Pleasanton grew after that time."

Fulford said oaks don't like over-watering, which is frequently a problem around irrigated areas, such as landscaped businesses and homes. They are susceptible to oak root fungus, which is caused by summer watering when the tree should stay dry.

"Gradually, this fungus, which is visible if small tree mushrooms can be seen growing out of the trunk, infests the body of the tree and turns the root system to mush, destroying the structural roots that hold the tree," he explained. "When you see these tree mushrooms, not to be confused with toadstools found in the yard, it may be too late to save the tree. That's why property owners need to call in an expert for an assessment and treatment."

Fulford's recommendations for tree care, particular for oak:

* Place mulch around the trunk of the tree at least 10 feet out and keep that section dry during the summer.

* If desired, place plants around the tree that require no summer irrigation.

* Don't over-prune or disturb the soil around oak trees within the "drip line" of the farthest-reaching branches. That destroys the leaves that provide the sugars and fruits that oak trees need to grow and stay healthy.

* Call in a tree expert every few years to inspect the tree for disease.

He said oaks are popular and good trees to plant, and the city plants them regularly in parks. They are reasonably fast growers, are sturdy and hold the soil.

"Often, you don't even need to plant an oak because the squirrels do it for you," Fulford added. "They carry the acorns all around the city, planting them and forgetting where they are. Soon, you'll see an oak shoot popping out of the ground--a phenomenon that I call a 'volunteer' oak."



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