Fallen eucalyptus tree along Pomerado Road in Scripps Ranch
“Deport the eucalyptus back to Australia!”
That’s Johnny Sevier, a certified arborist, on the tree he loves to hate but that many San Diegans revere, the ubiquitous eucalyptus.
Long an arboreal staple in San Diego and environs, these tall, gangly imports make headlines now and then when branches give way at inopportune times, maiming or even killing. And Sevier says that local bureaucrats, fellow arborists, and euc-enthusiasts have blood on their hands.
Eucalyptus crime map
Map image provided by MyTopo
On March 9 of this year, the eucalyptus struck again, this time in Scripps Ranch, which is, along with Rancho Santa Fe, perhaps the epicenter of eucalyptus worship in San Diego County. At Miramar Ranch Elementary, school had just adjourned, and Lana O’Shea, a kindergarten teacher, was leading her saplings out to meet their parents. A eucalyptus limb, apparently weakened by prior rain and wind, broke off and plummeted, leaving O’Shea with injuries requiring a six-day stay at the hospital. According to some reports, O’Shea took the proverbial bullet (or literal branch) for her charges, pushing them away right before impact. In any event, the children were unharmed.
Sevier, a voluble, colorful character — some would say feisty or even irascible — has a four-step plan to prevent the next airborne eucalyptus assault in San Diego. “Wake up, San Diego,” he proclaims, “there’s a simple solution. First, admit that planting eucalyptus in San Diego was a mistake with unintended consequences.” Next, he says, “Chainsaw, stump grinder, and [plant] different species.”
Unintended consequences? To address that notion, one must venture back to the hoary days of nascent San Diego, when the eucalyptus was touted as the perfect Southern Hemisphere import. Folks lauded its rapid growth and pleasing aesthetics. Its use for railroad ties was derailed by the wood’s tendency to warp when spiked. As for eucalyptus fishing poles fashioned for the local tuna fleet, that remains an apocryphal tale. Notwithstanding the tree’s dubious utility, it was here by the Civil War years.
Despite the eucalyptus’ rap sheet, there’s no shortage of defenders in Scripps Ranch, where eucalypti were planted by the thousands from the onset of the 20th Century into the Roaring Twenties. And just as the mother of an accused murderer is wont to plead, “My baby couldn’t have done that,” the civic guardians of all things floral in the Ranch are quick to excuse or minimize the culpability of their emblematic tree.
In the wake of the Miramar Ranch incident, I sought the perspective of one “Rancher,” Bob Ilko, president of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association. Ilko, a former officer with the San Diego Police Department, typifies the “neighborhood booster.”
“Just like the number of types of eucalyptus trees,” he quips, “there are people with differing opinions — love them, hate them, or are indifferent. As trees get older and taller, do they need to be laced back occasionally? Yes, you don’t top a eucalyptus tree, and sometimes you just have to take them out when, as the city maintenance people tell us, ‘they’re dead, dying, and dangerous.’”
Ilko is confident that the eucalyptus trees in the Ranch are under sufficient scrutiny.
“We have a certified arborist, Steve Hooker, who was our tree contractor for the maintenance assessment district in Scripps for over 20 years. He’s inspected every tree, looking for the telltale signs; dangerous trees have been removed as soon as they can be. But he’d never make a general statement that ‘all of them have to go.’” When I asked Ilko to comment on Sevier’s “chainsaw-and-stump-grinder” plan, Ilko, an affable, even-tempered man, sounded irked. “That’s his opinion.”
He flatly rejects the notion that the eucalyptus is uniquely hazardous.
“Every tree can be dangerous, just like every car can be dangerous. We’ve had how many hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees in Scripps Ranch? And how often do they fall? Not very often. I guess there’s always a risk; you could walk out in front of your house and get hit by a speeding driver, so you have to look at the individual tree’s health and size to evaluate whether it’s gonna fall over or not. But to just make a blanket statement about all eucalyptus? It’s just one opinion. There are plenty of people in Scripps who think the opposite, that the trees are completely fine. There are people in Scripps who’d love for them to go, but that’s impossible, because we don’t have 10 or 20 million dollars to cut every eucalyptus down. Then you gotta replant something; you just can’t take them all out and think it’s going to be fine and dandy.”
Ilko believes that even in Scripps Ranch, where Lana O’Shea narrowly escaped death, the odds of avoiding death-by-eucalyptus are greatly in one’s favor.
“We’ve got hundreds of thousands of these trees and they’re not killing people.” When I reminded Ilko of Frieda Williams’s death in 1983 at the San Diego Zoo, he replied, “I just read about a palm tree that fell over at a Carlsbad hotel and killed a tourist. Trees are trees, and they’re gonna fall.”
He also discounts Sevier’s role as an expert witness in the Williams wrongful-death suit against the zoo.
“For every plaintiff’s expert you have a defense expert. You can get people to say what you want them to say. You just have to pay them enough money. Sevier’s just one arborist; various arborists will have differing opinions. Maybe he’s right, technically, but even if he is, there’s not a pot of money to remove all these trees; it just isn’t gonna happen.” In any event, notes Ilko, “The eucalyptus is actually part of our community plan. They’re on the cover.”
When Johnny Sevier, born in Texas, came to San Diego in 1970, neither Scripps Ranch nor its community plan existed. He recalls, “After serving in the Air Force, I did my GI Bill at Mesa College. One day, while I was walking home from Mesa, I saw some tree trimmers at the side of the road and I thought, I’d like to do that. I was intrigued by the idea of people working on trees. I saw an ad in the Kearny Mesa AdViser for tree trimmers, and I showed up the next day for my first job with few tools and no experience. I said to the lady, ‘What would you like trimmed?’ I reached out my hand and she handed me $38. Slowly, I got more tools and rope, learned what I was doing, and eventually started hiring people to climb trees for me. One of the last trees I did before relocating to Texas was a 130-foot eucalyptus that was leaning towards a house in Scripps Ranch. I had to shoot a throw line with a special sling shot to get the rope up there so we could ascend to the top. It’s risky.”
If a tree falls...
Risky? As Sevier is quick to remind us, death and dismemberment by eucalyptus are nothing new in San Diego. But other types of trees have been blamed for local fatalities and maimings, too. The eucalyptus has neither a monopoly on downed tree limbs nor severed human limbs. Most recently, a venerable oak, representative of a native species, no less, crashed onto a Pacific Beach street with nary a shout of “timber!” and crushed a passing car. “It’s always eucalyptus,” exclaims Sevier. “It stands far ahead of the crowd; there’s nothing else close. There was a Torrey pine that killed someone in Pacific Beach a while back, but in that case, there appeared to be a lot of concrete construction and cutting of roots. Eucalyptus is still the king!”
I ask Sevier: “Do you hate the eucalyptus?”
“No. I think eucalyptus trees are just wonderful but I hate what they do when they’re grown where they’re not supposed to be, where there are a lot of people around. They should never have been imported to Southern California; they should have been left in the Australian countryside. Acreage has actually increased over the past few decades. Have you visited Scripps Ranch? That’s maximum density in terms of an old stand.”
Intermittent ambivalence aside, Sevier remains steadfast in his anti-euc jihad. “Eucalyptus is the bad actor that rings the telephone emergency calls for tree service, due to whole tree failure or limb failure. They’re responsible for 90 percent of the calls.”
I solicit Sevier’s comments on Steve Hooker’s view, as set forth in the Scripps Ranch Civic Association newsletter, that it’s enough to identify and remove certain trees that appear unhealthy, but neither possible nor desirable to remove all dead and dying trees. “That’s it, right there! The tree isn’t dying back or having health problems; it’s the health of the tree that’s the problem. They outgrow their own strength and they fall apart. It’s so simple. The tree that nearly killed the teacher wasn’t dead. Even if it had been a dead tree, it would have been an even more powerful story because what could be more obvious than a big dead tree, and why would a dead tree be allowed to stand? The other big smokescreen is, ‘It was a big, healthy tree — we never expected it.’” Sevier adds, “When they get older, sure, they get taller and more brittle, but the trees that almost killed the two Channel 10 TV reporters were no more than 35 or 40 years old. These are bullshit distractions, this fog of talking about false scenarios.”
The incident to which he refers took place in the early morning hours of February 1 of this year, when a 10News reporter and her cameraman, who were in Mira Mesa reporting on trees that had fallen during inclement whether, were struck and seriously injured by a falling eucalyptus tree. It was not raining, nor was there much wind when the incident happened.
I query Sevier, “What makes the eucalyptus more hazardous than other trees of the same size; e.g., an oak?”
“It outgrows its own strength. It has more weight on the limb than the limb can actually support. One of the terms you’ll hear is, ‘sudden branch drop phenomenon.’ In Australia, it got nicknamed ‘the widow maker.’ Workers would go out where the trees grow, and come home… dead.”
“But,” I ask, “is there anything good about the eucalyptus?” Grudgingly, he replies, “They make a great tall skyline and a very attractive logo. That’s wonderful when you’re driving down Pomerado Road, as long as that tall, skinny, brittle tree doesn’t smash the roof of your car, which has happened. But in terms of the usual qualities you look for in a tree, like shade, there are so many better choices, such as sycamore and ficus. The ficus puts out nice shade but doesn’t cause too many problems with limb breakage. They’ll cost you with the plumber but they won’t kill you.
“Have you heard of Dan Simpson, chief arborist at the zoo?” Sevier asks. “He hates my guts because I testified for the plaintiff in the Williams case.”
Sevier goes back to the death of Frieda Williams, the four-year-old who’d been sitting on a curb at the zoo when an old eucalyptus relinquished a branch for the last time.
San Diego Zoo eucalyptus that killed Frieda Willams (trial evidence)
“I testified that not only was the subject tree in the family of bad actors, but it had a history of limb failure. I have photos that show it. It wasn’t a heavy limb, 50 pounds or less, but it fell from high in the tree. There’s another thing that makes the eucalyptus so destructive and why it did such horrible damage to the reporter and camera man from Channel 10. Unlike a willow tree or Chinese elm, which have a lot of padding in the way of twigs and leaves, the eucalyptus doesn’t. Notice that when you look around Scripps Ranch, you’ve got 95 percent trunk with a little puff of growth out on the end. You don’t have a real canopy; you just have this long, skinny, very hard piece of wood. When it hits you, it’s like being hit by a piece of pipe from 50 or 70 feet in the air. It’s very unforgiving.”
Frieda Willams' trial evidence
William O’Shea forgives neither the eucalyptus that injured his wife nor the bureaucrats that, in his view, facilitated the accident. Needless to say, if there were an organization called Save the Eucs, William O’Shea wouldn’t be the president. As he describes his wife’s injury and lingering effects, he says, “I’m extremely angry about this. That was my first thought then, and still is today. My wife’s not going to be the same person again. She’s got headaches, memory loss. Some days she does really well, but other days…. She had severe head trauma, severe lacerations, as well as broken ribs on her right side from falling down the stairs after the impact of the tree. She also has a lot of associated injuries I’m not going to talk about — you can figure it out. We don’t know when Lana will be able to go back to work; we’re very thankful she’s alive.”
Sevier says that prevention is feasible. “My plan would be to remove the eucalyptus trees from what we call ‘target areas.’ Who has been successful at removing the trees from target areas? The zoo did after the verdict came down in [the] Williams [case]. They set up a program of systematically removing the eucalyptus trees that could reach people when they fall or parts of them fall. So now, when you walk around the zoo — when you look at the entrance to the zoo, where there used to be this 75-foot monster that killed Frieda Williams — there’s no eucalyptus. They replaced them.”
I ask Sevier why more hasn’t been done to address the issue.
“The places that have taken tree action have done so when people have taken legal action. People being hurt or killed isn’t enough; you’ve gotta have a jury verdict. That’s really sad. The zoo and Caltrans are the only people who’ve actually done what I think should be done. There used to be what I called a ‘eucalyptus death row’ along the 163 where lots of people were injured or killed. Many eucalyptus trees would fail any time there was wind and rain. There were so many lawsuits that Caltrans was afraid that they’d eventually be assessed punitive damages with serious, seven-figure awards. So they phased them out.”
Sevier spoke about his pivotal role in the Williams matter.
“Before it went to trial, the zoo cut that tree down. But prior to that, I’d been doing a TV news interview under the tree and took pictures. That’s when I saw that the tree had a stub in it, indicating it had broken a limb before. I took this to trial where I testified as an expert witness. The zoo had the most honored tree expert on Earth, Dr. Richard Harris, as their expert. I’d never testified at trial in my life, and the zoo had this author, lecturer, Ph.D. in their corner. But when the jury saw that picture, their jaws just dropped; they didn’t care about the Ph.D.”
“If the eucalyptus is a ‘bad actor,’” I ask, “who are the good guys?”
“I’ve been in the tree business since May 1972, and I’ve never gotten an emergency call on a Chinese elm. They put out a canopy, they provide shade and beauty, they lose their leaves in the winter so they let light in on the other landscape. No one has ever said, ‘Mr. Sevier, I know it’s midnight, but we’ve got a Chinese elm that’s crushed the side of our house and we need your help.”
Sevier opines that one cause of “eucalypti gone wrong” is that in America, they’ve been coddled. “It’s a tree that can struggle in the Australian outback, so when you bring it to San Diego and plant it in areas with a lot of irrigation, the roots don’t have to go anywhere to get their nourishment; they have it right there. So the tree can grow very quickly, with a lot of height above ground. But under ground, the roots didn’t have to struggle to spread out. You have a giant above ground but a midget below. You’ve slowed down the anchoring process. Did you see the Channel 10 video? There was hardly any root; it’s all trunk. On a huge tree that’s fallen, there should be a big ’ol root ball tipped up, two stories high, but with the eucalyptus, it’s always the same — this small amount of roots. You get a good stretch of rain and then some wind, they go over just like bowling pins.”
To get another arborist’s view of the eucalyptus and Sevier’s condemnation of the Aussie as uniquely dangerous, I consulted Tony Rangel, a certified arborist and chief tree maven at Palomar College. Rangel’s response was measured. “I don’t have the concise data to confirm or deny this statement. However, if not tended to properly, the common species could end up being a liability down the road, yes. In Australia they must compete with each other for moisture and sunlight, so they grow very tall and fast to out-compete each other and the other species in their habitat. Most people in California over-water these species, which ultimately causes abnormal sustained growth. Because the trees are not genetically capable of developing strong lateral limbs compared to other trees, the resulting new, heavy growth at the end of the branches causes the limbs to fail.”
Rangel notes that “bad haircuts” seem to plague the eucalyptus. “One of the main problems for arborists is that often by the time we get called out to look at a specimen, it’s been previously topped by someone who didn’t know that topping dooms the tree to fail.”
Topping reduces height, leaving unnatural stubs. If it doesn’t kill a tree, it leads to abnormal growth near the cut — poorly attached limbs that, as they grow taller, will rip away from the stem or trunk.
I ask Rangel about the eucalyptus’s root system, which Sevier condemns as unduly shallow.
“There are countless species of trees that are shallow-rooted. In fact, nearly all trees produce their primary stability and feeder/absorption roots within the top two to three feet of the surface.” On the other hand, says Rangel, “I tried to transplant a eucalyptus years ago and recently tried to remove eucalyptus tree stumps; they often have pretty significant tap roots.”
In Rangel’s experience, when a eucalyptus topples, it’s due to poor planning or care.
“Often, the tall-growing species are planted in shallow soils; the roots never get a chance to go deep or wide enough to stabilize them in strong winds. At other times, large eucalyptus trees have roots pruned due to road work, sidewalk repair, or other concrete work. As a result, the tree can no longer support itself and falls over after the first storm. In other cases, pathogens begin to infect the roots of the tree and this can also cause failures....
“A big problem for any municipal arborist is managing trees that are the wrong species for the location.”
However, the eucalyptus isn’t unique in being misplaced. Rangel echoes Sevier’s view on past mistakes.
“When many of our cities were planned, not much sound, species-specific data was available for those who were doing the planting. This resulted in tall, large-growing tree species being planted in locations where smaller, shorter trees would have been better. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I am sure that most arborists can attest that a good portion of their calls result from this very problem.”
William O’Shea says, “I used to cut wood for a living back in Maine, so I’m familiar with wood.” Recalling the accident at Miramar Ranch Elementary, he comments, “It was the ‘perfect storm.’ It was a beautiful day when it happened, but two days prior to that, there was a wind and hail storm right on the campus. I went there to check out the site, but I didn’t see the actual branch, which is mislabeled; it’s actually a ‘bough.’ But I’ve seen the picture. It looks like it’s more than 12 inches in diameter, probably 10 to 12 feet long, at least 200 pounds. It took two men with two 18-inch bar chainsaws to remove that bough. I’ve cut wood my whole life, and that’s pretty big. I don’t know if they were milking the clock, but it took ’em two hours.”
After a broken-branch mishap that nearly fell on children and sent a teacher to the hospital for six days, still no talk of a different logo for the school.
O’Shea maintains that the San Diego Unified School District had known about the hazard for years but failed to mitigate it.
“I’m angry about it, because this was preventable. I actually reported it to the school secretary on prior occasions after I’d witnessed large chunks of wood falling down into the employee parking lot. I don’t know where it went from there, but I did my part. I don’t know whether it’s on record or not; they can say I never come in or call it ‘hearsay’ if they want....
“We just met with with the OSHA investigator, who asked us, ‘What would you like to see done’? I told her, ‘I’d like to see every single tree that’s near any pedestrian path cut down.’ Take a look at where we live, Solana Beach, for example. When El Niño started, they took every eucalyptus tree on 101 and limbed them; same thing at Scripps Montessori where my son goes, as well as at a business across the street.”
Is limbing enough?
“Look what they did at Sandy Hook,” he says. “They tore the whole school down. A tree like that — that causes danger — take the tree down. And after the experts get it down, I’d be happy to volunteer to haul it away....
“Miramar Ranch tells me that they’ve spent $100,000 in tree maintenance during the past year, but I can’t see where they did it, because I was there last year, and I didn’t see any maintenance goin’ on. I’m sure it’s a matter of record somewhere, but I don’t see what they did. However, on the day my wife was hurt, the City of San Diego started cutting down trees in Balboa Park....
“As a retired Marine Corps officer, I will tell you, I am really disappointed with the leadership displayed by the school, by the district, and by the city and county of San Diego. This is totally preventable. It’s the same thing as leaving a piece of rail on the trolley tracks: you could see it coming. This is nothing new. I know that the city has limited resources, but people keep getting pay raises (my wife included), so I think the priorities are not where they need to be when it comes to the safety of our kids and educators. There’s easily 50 eucalyptus trees on that campus, and I still can’t believe those trees are there, because there’s still a danger to those kids who have to walk under them.”
William O’Shea declined to comment on the prospect of filing a lawsuit.