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Failing elms endanger Eastmoreland neighbors

When good trees go bad
by: David F. Ashton, Eastmoreland resident Tim Clark looks at what remains of his American Elm tree that “failed”, taking out all utilities to neighbors on his street. (Photo by David F. Ashton)

The canopy of elm trees that line the streets of Eastmoreland provide a lush, cool green oasis on a hot summer's day. When autumn rolls around, the turning leaves brush the streets with rich colors of red and yellow. And, in the winter months, the outline of the branches against the winter sky look like a blocks-long jig-saw puzzle.

But when these trees start to fail, huge limbs fall, crushing anything below them. Sadly, and perhaps frighteningly, such failures of these massive trees are sharply increasing.

On evening of September 20th, Tim Clark and his wife were at their home on S.E. 28th Avenue, between Crystal Springs Drive and Lambert Street.

'I was inside, talking on the phone,' Clark tells us. 'My wife steps outside to start her walk and calls to me, 'Honey, quick! The tree is going to fall down!' I went out, thinking a little branch was going to fall off the tree.'

100' tree splits, darkens neighborhood

But, as they looked the elm tree on their lawn, Clark says they could see it was slowly splitting down the middle, making a deep cracking sound.

'I said 'Run. Run as fast as you can.' I saw squirrels, a cat, and leaves flying as it crashed to the ground. I didn't know how many other trees it was going to take with it - or how many houses or cars it would damage. It was frightening.'

As it turned out, the half of the tree that failed came down, as Clark says, 'in the perfect direction, into the street, missing a car by inches.'

However, the falling giant did snap a utility pole across the street, and missed that neighbor's home by inches. Crews scrambled to replace damaged electrical feed lines, a transformer, and telephone and cable wires. 'We had our lights back on by 10 p.m.,' Clark remembers.

Branches, extending off the standing half of the tree, fully shaded the second story of Clark's two-story Colonial style home. 'Our bedroom is right under those limbs,' Clark continues, 'so my wife slept downstairs that night. I slept up there, but not very well, wondering what it would be like if it came down in the middle of the night!'

According to a city arborist, this was one of the largest elm trees in Eastmoreland. After it split, the rest of the tree was found to be unstable; it's been condemned.

Other Eastmoreland elms split

Three weeks earlier, on August 31, about four blocks north, another elm failed. It was on SE Tolman, just west of Reed College Place.

'I came home a little after 6 p.m.,' is the report we hear from neighbor Shay Michael. 'We were in our patio and heard what we thought was firecrackers. The cracking sound sounded louder and louder so we came out front and saw the street completely blocked by this fallen tree.'

This elm failure missed hitting a car parked in a driveway by less than a foot. Surprisingly, there were no injuries or property damage from this incident.

Why great elm trees fail

According to Portland City Arborist in charge of southeast Portland, Ned Sodja, many of these elm trees fail because they have have co-dominant stems. 'In other words, it's like each tree has two or three 'trunks' that grow together. But, they're attached only weakly to one another.'

At the trunk, these 'co-dominant stems' are hidden by what he calls 'included bark' that wraps around the circumference of the tree trunk, hiding the stems from view. Splitting is not evident till failure occurs.

'Elm trees will always have failures,' continues Sodja. 'This time of year, the trees have grown, and opened a full canopy. The summer heat dries out the trees. Then, the added weight of rain causes them to split apart at their weakest point and fail. This winter, if we have any icing, we'll see more-- many more--such failures in Eastmoreland.'

Predicts increasing elm failures, damage

As these trees age, they continue to grow, Sodja explains. As they grow, the weight adds more stress, pressure that tends to rip co-dominant stems apart. Expect to see more trees splitting in the near future.

'In these cases, the damage has been minimal. I've seen many vehicles and structures damaged by trees that fail.'

Sodja recommends that homeowners hire an arborist to inspect their trees and get an evaluation of their condition. 'If it is on your property, and not the right-of-way, the expense is minimal compared to potential damage caused by a failing tree - especially with the size of trees that are in Eastmoreland.'

At the least, the city arborist suggested homeowners start making their own visual inspection of larger trees in their yards. 'Especially look at your trees after a big rain storm or wind storm. See any splits or changes? Hear any unusual cracking sounds? Feel any changes in the ground indicating the tree may become uprooted? These are signs of serious potential problems.'

Sodja to the rescue

Many of Eastmoreland's mighty elms grow on curbside lawns. 'If you have concerns about a tree in your right-of-way, call me. I'd rather come out and take a look than be called out to see the damage caused by a falling tree.'

You can reach City Arborist Ned Sodja at 503/823-4440.