SF Woman’s Death Highlights Dangers of Eucalyptus
An accident at Golden Gate Park this past Saturday resulted in the tragic death of one San Francisco senior resident. A tree branch suddenly detached from its trunk and struck the elderly passerby below, fatally wounding her. At around 5:15 PM, a passing runner discovered the fallen woman on JFK Drive south of 30th Avenue and Fulton Street. Paramedics arrived promptly but were unable to revive her.
It’s the kind of incident you’d expect from the writers of Six Feet Under or even the Final Destination franchise. This ostensibly chance occurrence happens more frequently than one might expect. In fact, it fits the M.O. of an invasive plant species disguised as a California icon. While it was a pine tree that sadly killed Beth Louise Abrams, frequent visitors of Golden Gate Park initially suspected the offending limb belonged to a eucalyptus tree. After all, it’s happened before.
The no-good wood
The twisting eucalyptus has troubled California since its introduction. In the 1850s, loggers turned to the Australian tree for a cheaper, fast-growing source of construction timber. Though not yet logged to near-extinction, second-generation California redwood could not mature to the quality of old-growth timber in one lumberjack’s lifetime. Swaths of eucalyptus appeared while giant sequoia continued to vanish from their native rugged coastline.
The joke would be on them. Loggers soon learned that their eucalyptus crops were worthless. Once the trees had been harvested, trimmed and dried, the boards twisted and shrank like noodles. Moreover, the wood proved impenetrable by nail or spike, making them useless for the booming railroad industry. An alternative use for the gangly eucalyptus soon emerged. Farmers found they made effective windbreaks, and landscapers reappropriated them for use as shade trees.
Right at home in our dry coastal climate, the fragrant, oily tree mutated from suburban lawn ornament to invasive nuisance. It forever changed California’s ecology, driving out native plants and wildlife. As if that weren’t enough, the Australian import also accelerates wildfires, whose intense heat makes the tree boil and explode. Eucalyptus groves violently burst into flame during the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm which took 4,000 homes and twenty-five lives.
A true colonizer, eucalyptus thrives on the destruction of the native environment. This is particularly evident after a major forest fire. In 2013, Forest Ecologist David Bowman told KQED about the tree’s evolutionary advantage. “Fire opens up the woody capsules that hold the seeds, which love growing on freshly burned soil. Give a hillside a really good torching and the eucalyptus will absolutely dominate. They’ll grow intensively in the first few years of life and outcompete everything.”
Out on a limb
In another evolutionary twist, eucalyptus trees like to shed their branches. Large limbs are cumbersome to the hungry plant, growing too heavy to maintain. Then, without warning or provocation, they snap, often falling in little to no wind. One would-be victim, Ron Eadie, likened the crack to a shotgun blast
(Palo Alto Online). From heights up to 150 feet, the dense, pulpy wood plummets to the ground. Mr. Eadie was lucky. “You know what they call those trees, don’t you? ‘Widow makers,’” he said.
Danger hides in our eucalyptus groves. “When these trees fall, people exclaim it’s an act of God that no one was killed,” arborist John Sevier told The Daily Hornet. Orange County officials consulted Sevier after a fifty-foot eucalyptus tree fell and crushed a woman in 2011. The 9,000-pound tree grew from a stand of blue gum eucalyptus planted along Newport Beach’s Irvine Avenue. “In my opinion,” Sevier said, “it’s by the grace of God that more people haven’t gotten killed by these trees.”
The species has claimed lives elsewhere in the state. Sevier once assisted on a case of a four-year-old girl killed by a falling eucalyptus at the San Diego Zoo. In October 2020 a blue gum eucalyptus crashed the wedding party of a young bride in Whittier, killing her mother. Her three-year-old niece suffered a traumatic brain injury and was hospitalized in critical condition. Six other relatives sustained injuries when the eighty-foot specimen fell on the family. The group was posing for photographs.
Eucalyptus aren’t the only trees to spontaneously shed their limbs. Others that could see a repeat of this tragedy include sycamore, oak, and poplar. The branch responsible for Saturday’s accident did not fall from a eucalyptus, but a pine tree. It’s victim: 73-year-old Beth Louise Abrams of Bernal Heights, San Francisco (The Chronicle). The wind and rain also brought down an old pine at Metson Lake, also in Golden Gate Park. A Financial District ficus toppled onto a MUNI bus; no one at either locale was injured.