On a clear day with little wind, a red ironbark eucalyptus tree of more than 30 feet toppled into one of the city’s busiest entrances on Broadway Street and damaged two cars, prompting a city investigation of the other trees on the block.
“We are so lucky no one was hurt,” said Tayeba Salhi, of Aliso Viejo, who was driving with her daughter and niece toward the beach and slowed when seeing something falling from above about 3 p.m. Monday, July 16.
Her reflexive action meant only the bumper of Salhi’s car struck the trunk of the uprooted tree, which did far more damage to a parked car. The trunk crumpled the hood and bent the frame of a sedan belonging to Tiffany Thompson, at work in the nearby offices of Independent publisher Firebrand Media.
An 18-year resident of the area, Salhi said she stops in Laguna several times a week, patronizing the market, going for a run, dining in restaurants. “Laguna is our backyard,” she said. With the recent hike in parking meter rates (Salhi spent $15 while watching Sunday’s World Cup match) and falling trees, Salhi said mockingly, “I’ll have to think twice about coming here.” Shifting to a more sober note she added, “They have to make it safe here.”
For her part, Thompson borrowed her daughter’s car to drive from her home in Aliso Viejo and resumed parking this week in the same spot, though now it lacks shade. “It’s now the safest place on the street,” she said.
Thompson hoped the tree damage to her 2016 BMW was only cosmetic, but remains upbeat even after the body shop refused to repair her car after detecting the bent frame. “What are the odds of a tree hitting your car?” she asked.
The city of Newport Beach removed scores of decades-old blue gum eucalyptus trees after a 10-ton specimen uprooted and crushed a passing car, killing a motorist in 2011. Drought-weakened trees also toppled in Laguna Beach during drenching rainstorms in 2017.
The Broadway Street tree failed due to the combination of a shallow root system, a small well for a mature specimen and trunk decay below the surface of the sidewalk, according to Shohreh Dupuis, an assistant city manager and director of public works.
The city’s arborist will inspect the other trees on Broadway to determine if they require a more sophisticated level of assessment using drilling or x-rays to detect decay, she said.
Similar trees line the sidewalk of the 500 block of Broadway, an area of high pedestrian use near Laguna Playhouse and the Festival of Arts. Most of the tree wells are nearly filled in. The wells are covered with a type of concrete that was initially designed to be permeable to reduce tripping hazards, Dupuis said.
“The proliferation of extremely large trees in overly small tree wells, narrow sidewalks, building adjacency and the lack of an irrigation system is more likely to be the cause of this failure than the installation of concrete fill,” she said. “Eucalyptus trees are prone to failure due to the shallow rooting systems, and are subject to a phenomenon known as sudden branch drop where limbs fall for no apparent reason. Most municipalities have curtailed the installation of eucalyptus trees as street trees due to these issues.”
Landscape architect Ann Christoph, a candidate for City Council, disagreed in part with Dupuis’ assessment.
Christoph said she and horticulturist Ruben Flores “have been trying to get the city to remove that concrete from the tree wells because as the tree trunk expands the concrete can girdle the tree. That could have been a factor in the tree failure,” she said.