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July 4, 2014

Growing concern: Falling tree incidents draw attention to roadside hazards

— Recent reports of trees falling onto passing vehicles have more people looking up as they travel. Some are changing their routes because of potential hazards.

Reports of two vehicles in Somerset County being hit in about a week’s time have prompted a rash of phone calls and emails to The Tribune-Democrat drawing attention to potentially dangerous trees.

Martha Banda is one of those who think more attention should be paid to what is growing along the areas highways.

Banda, a former Johnstown councilwoman, has been watching two trees near her home for some time. Two months ago, she and her husband, Nick, changed their route of travel.

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

On Monday, a tree fell onto the front end of a southbound sport utility vehicle on Route 985 near Berkey Road outside Jennerstown.

That same day a man was killed in Warren County after a tree fell onto the windshield of his truck.

On June 23 two young sisters were killed when a tree fell onto the vehicle they were riding in on Route 403 in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

Ryleigh, 8, and Mikayla Freiwald, 6, were killed  when a tree fell from a hillside on Route 403, landing on the vehicle they were riding in.

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

“It’s one of those things that when it happens it gets a lot of attention, and it happens from time to time,” said Michael Barton, a Sidman-based forest expert.

State police in Somerset County reported that on Monday, Laura Replogle, 29, was driving a 2013 Honda Pilot south on Route 985 – Somerset Pike – in Jenner Township when a tree on the west side of the highway “suddenly and unexpectedly fell onto the roadway.”

After initial impact, the Honda continued on the roadway for more than 77 feet in a south direction and came to rest in the southbound lane.

Replogle and a front seat passenger were transported to Somerset Hospital.

Four other passengers, two from Holsopple and two from Boswell, were not treated, according to the report.

The incidents occurred about 10 miles apart.

The tree that fell on June 23 had a root system that was completely rotted, Barton said.

“The top had already broken out. It probably was dead for some time.”

Both trees were on state-owned and -maintained highways and are being looked at.

On Tuesday, PennDOT said it was withholding comment until more can be learned, a position that had not changed of as Thursday, according to Rich Kirkpatrick of PennDOT’s central office in Harrisburg.

Banda’s concern is for two trees 70- to 80-feet tall leaning over the roadway in the Hornerstown area on the route from Moxham to Dale.

While in an urban area, the site has a woodsy feel and the trees are arching over the highway.

Barton said PennDOT is aware of the potential danger of falling trees, whether they are on the state right of way or private property back from the highway.

Travel 10 miles on any given highway and chances are you will spot three trees that need to be taken down, he said.

“The task is overwhelming.”

He is urging motorists to contact the state when they are concerned about a tree and said someone will respond.

“If it’s on their easement, they’ll remove it free of charge,” Barton said.

As forester for the Portage Water Department, Barton keeps a close eye on trees, especially those in close proximity to highways.

He recently contacted PennDOT about nine trees on Route 164 he felt could come down.

“Seven of the tree were on the right of way and they took all nine down,” Barton said. “They’re fairly responsive.”

However, he cautioned, a homeowner runs the risk of a pricey tree removal if the tree is not PennDOT’s responsibility.

“It’s a Catch-22. If it’s on your property, it’s your responsibility,” he said.

Knowledge of a problem tree and failure to act creates a huge liability should something happen, Barton said.

He is urging people to visit PennDOT’s homepage and make the state aware of worrisome trees.

“They’ll check it out and then get back to people. Sometimes it may take a week or two,” he said.

 

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

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