The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


July 1, 2014

‘Rash of fatalities’

Forestry experts, PennDOT perplexed by incidents of trees falling along roadways

— A series of incidents where trees fell on passing cars – including a tragic fatal crash last week in Somerset County –  should have private property owners taking stock of conditions along highways, a local forest specialist said.

Larry Powell of the Stoystown-based Appalachian Forest Consultants said property owners should make careful inspections of trees to see if there is a risk one could fall onto a roadway.

“Private property owners could be held liable,” Powell said Tuesday. “I would imagine there are a lot of people looking at their trees.

“If you’ve been told and know there is a problem, you absolutely could be held liable.”

On Monday just after 1 p.m., one person was taken to a hospital with minor injuries after a tree fell onto the front end of a southbound sport utility vehicle on Route 985 near Berkey Road near Jennerstown.

Five passengers, including four children, were not injured.

But on June 23, sisters Ryleigh, 8, and Mikayla Freiwald, 6, were killed when a tree fell from a roadside hill onto the vehicle in which they were riding on Route 403 in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

Four other passengers in that vehicle were injured including a pregnant mother, two children and man who was driving the 2004 Pontiac.

A makeshift memorial has sprung up along the road where the Freiwald girls were killed.

The two local incidents occurred about 10 miles apart.

Also Monday, a Venango County man died when a tree fell on the windshield of his truck, The Associated Press reported.

Lanny Ross, 54, of Oil City, was driving on Route 27 in Pittsfield Township, Warren County, when the tree crashed onto his vehicle.

Warren County Coroner Jerry Borden speculated that the tree, which came down with roots intact, likely toppled after recent rains softened the ground.

‘Trees fall a lot’

Forest experts and others are baffled by the sudden surge of toppling trees along roadways.

They wonder: Is it coincidence, the result of an unusually cold and long winter, or perhaps a wet spring?

“I don’t think it’s any different that it has been in years past,” Powell said. “Unfortunately, there’s just been a rash of fatalities with these falling trees.”

In all three cases, the vehicles were traveling on state-owned and maintained highways.

PennDOT isn’t saying much.

“Until we learn more, we are reserving comment,” said Tara Callahan-Henry, PennDOT spokeswoman for District 9 in Hollidaysburg.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said Tuesday that a rotted deciduous tree

– one that loses its leaves in the fall – broke off at ground level and fell onto Route 403 last week, killing the Freiwald sisters.

It could not be immediately determined Tuesday the condition of the tree that struck the SUV Monday on Route 985, Miller said.

“I just think these trees fall a lot and these just happened to hit vehicles,” Miller said.

A study undertaken in the 1990s showed that 84 percent of trees that fall do so after they have had other failures, said Scott Sjolander, associate educator of urban forests with Penn State’s Crawford County extension office.

The problems range from disease and decay to soil failure and cracked trunks, Sjolander said.

“Some species, such as white oaks, drop limbs during heat stress,” he said. “Who knows what could have been the point of failure? I’m surprised we don’t have more failures.”

‘Vegetation management’

Sjolander said the state highway department has easement rights along some roads, but checking trees 70 or more feet from the road is a daunting task.

Rich Kirkpatrick of Penn-DOT’s central office in Harrisburg provided The Tribune-Democrat with the link to a website outlining the state’s approach to what it terms “vegetation management.”

Information from the website shows that the state maintains 40,000 miles of roadway along with 25,000 bridges.

Much of the effort is put into mowing an estimated 112,000 acres between May and October and a region’s tree-trimming crew is put to work hardest in the winter, when roads and bridges do not need attention.

“Vegetation management occurs at any time of year with an increased emphasis in late fall and through the winter, when snow removal isn’t required,” the PennDOT site says.

Kirkpatrick said being aware of a diseased or otherwise failing tree is the key.

“In general, we can seek an authorization to enter a property where we have been notified of a weakened tree,” he said in an email. “Tree trimming is part of our county maintenance operations and is scheduled where warranted.”

Len Lichvar, district manager of the Somerset County Conservation District, said the fallen trees should be investigated just as many accidents are reconstructed.

“Trees coming down, they certainly are not an unknown quantity in this world. It is the timing of them,” he said. “I just don’t have an answer for it.”

One of Pennsylvania’s best assets are its forests, said Powell, the Stoystown forester.

“This is Penn’s Woods,” he said. “There are a lot of trees here.”

Kathy Mellott covers transportation issues for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her at @kathymellotttd.

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