The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


July 13, 2014

Getting to root of driving hazards | Experts at loss to explain toppling trees

JOHNSTOWN — Add falling trees to the list of hazards of which motorists must be aware.

Trees have been dropping at an alarming rate across the Laurel Highlands, state and country.

In what can only be described as a freak accident, two young sisters were killed June 23 when a tree fell from a hillside onto the car in which they were riding. That accident happened along Route 403 near Carpenter Park Road in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

And on June 30, also in Somerset County, a tree fell onto a sport utility vehicle on Route 985 near the intersection with Berkey Road.

One person was taken to the hospital, but five other passengers escaped injury.

That same day, a truck driver was killed in Warren County when a tree fell onto his vehicle.

On July 2, a large tree fell across Solomon Street, between the Solomon Homes and Walters Avenue.

Thankfully, it did not hit anything on its way down.

On July 5, an individual in the Fairhope area of Somerset County was injured by a falling limb.

Most recently, a tree fell onto a roller coaster in Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, stranding about two dozen riders for hours.

The risk of accidents has a Johnstown couple taking a proactive approach. Nick and Martha Banda have found different routes of travel to avoid Von Lunen Road. Mrs. Banda said she has been watching two trees near her home that have been hanging over the road.

“We haven’t been using Von Lunen Road for two months because of fear of them falling,” she said.

Forestry experts, Penn-DOT officials and others are at a loss to explain the happenings.

“I just think these trees fall a lot and these just happened to hit vehicles, Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller told our Kathy Mellott after investigating the Route 403 accident.

Added forester Larry Powell: “I don’t think it’s any different that it has been in years past. Unfortunately, there’s just been a rash of fatalities with these falling trees.” Powell is employed by Appalachian Forest Consultants of Stoystown.

Many people are asking questions, and so far, no one has been able to answer them.

Have the trees fallen victim to insect infestation or disease? Acid rain? Over-zealous trimming and topping? Lightning strikes? Harsh winters? Climate change?

Are only certain varieties involved? Are they all hardwoods, or softwoods, or a mix of both?

No one has been able to solve the riddle.

In the meantime, Sidman-based forest expert Michael Barton offers the following advice: Motorists should contact PennDOT if they are concerned about a tree.

“If it’s on their (Penn-DOT's) easement, they’ll remove it free of charge.”

But that doesn’t leave property owners off the hook if it is determined that PennDOT is not liable for a dangerous tree.

“If it’s on your property, it’s your responsibility,” Barton said.

He also said that concerned motorists can log onto PennDOT’s website and make the highway department aware of hazardous trees.

“They’ll check it out and then get back to people,” he said.

When we climb behind the wheel, we should take the advice of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors, who sang: “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”

And don’t forget to sneak a peak at the trees.

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