MARTINEZ, Calif. – Along with October’s wildfires and power outages, high winds brought an abrupt end to the Farmers’ Market and Halloween festivities when a large tree fell, injuring nine people at Main Street Plaza, Oct. 27. As the injured heal, people are looking for ways to explain the anomaly and prevent it in the future.
There has been trouble with trees in the past, but apparently not related to the Australian Willow that fell. A few branches from older trees have fallen on cars and caused a short-term power outage.
“This is the first time someone has been injured,” Mayor Rob Schroder said. “Because of this tragedy caused by wind, we decided to immediately remove all of the trees that could be possibly be a hazard, especially those near the outdoor dining areas.”
Since the Sonoma County fire and the Plaza tree uprooting, the number of requests for tree removals equals or surpasses public demands to plant and keep trees in Martinez.
City officials constantly face the same dichotomy PG&E met when that company fought to remove thousands of trees in cities throughout the East Bay. It is the balance between safety, and the benefits of cleaner air, shade in summer, increased property values, and the aesthetic beauty of trees.
Notice the sharp contrast between photos of Martinez and Pleasant Hill in the 1950s and those of 2019. It is not just development. It is the trees. As trees planted over the past half-century age, it has become evident which are best for public spaces and which are not.
“Trees are very valuable, especially with respect to the ambiance in the downtown,” Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder said. Before the unfortunate accident, the city had hired an arborist, who walked the town and offered advice.
“The trees that are there, are not the right kind for downtown. They drop things and the roots can cause heaving of the sidewalk, and they look sort of gnarly.” He was referring to the 35-year old Ornamental Pear trees throughout the town.
According to Schroder, the arborist said many of them need to be replaced and warned against planting new trees that are all of the same species, for health reasons. If some trees are infected with a disease, they will all die. The city has removed various trees as needed, over the past few years, but planted few replacements.
“We have 15 or so trees we are looking to replace,” he commented. “My thought is that it will be done in phases.”
Whatever new tree policies develop, they will not make a difference for Christina Sosa, who was in surgery Nov. 7, for an ankle injury caused by the fallen Australian Willow tree. Catherine Looper, who suffered a concussion when the tree fell said, “I was knocked out. When I woke up, I could see my 10-month old son screaming through the tree.”
Their family had been invited for a day of fun at the festivities with a Martinez family that was also hurt when the tree fell. Looper said she was taken to John Muir Trauma Center in Walnut Creek and the other family was taken to Kaiser. One of them was later transferred to John Muir because her injuries were more serious than expected, according to Looper.
By chance, Martinez Public Works Director Bob Cellini was at the scene of the accident when it happened. “He was right there, on the phone talking to me about a power outage that could affect the water system before it happened.” Dave Scola said.
Cellini said, “We had just walked right under the tree,” he recalled. “With the wind, I remember thinking, ‘I hope we don’t have a tree branch fall.’ I have been wanting to take the Ornamental Pears (trees) out.”
Standing about 15 feet from the tree, Cellini said he was conversing with his son-in-law when suddenly, he heard screams. They both rushed to see if anyone was hurt. “We couldn’t budge the tree,” he remembered.
They found an injured girl, carefully extricated her from the tree branches and looked for more injured, according to Cellini. “There was no warning. Not a crack or a snap,” he said.
He said the Australian Willow was planted after the flood control project was completed, around 1997 to 1999 and it was not one of the trees he had wanted to remove. The City has removed a large number of trees in Brittany Hills because of concern about falling branches, but it has taken about a year to go through the public process of deciding about replacements and scheduling work. Martinez has a dedicated tree crew that is constantly documenting the status of the trees, according to Cellini.