A big oak tree — nearly three feet wide at the base, and about forty feet high — split and dropped three-quarters of its trunk in our yard last week. Our neighbor Chris Nottoli came out to look at the massive remains on the ground that night and shook his head. Just a day before he had planted a squash near the tree, under a screen to protect it from the dogs. He figured the squash was probably squashed under the debris, and warned me to watch out for it as I attempted to clean up with a chainsaw.
I told him I wasn’t so sure. Oak trees — as dominating, as massive, and as heavy as they are — don’t seem to cause as much damage as one might expect when they fall. I went Googling looking for examples and found only two deaths listed, and that was because two people in a car in Georgia ran into a tree that had just fallen in a storm. Of course a less scientific method of research could hardly be imagined, but according to a USDA Forest Service chart from l982, the live oak is among the varieties of trees most resistant to storm damage — only longlife pines fare better.
Later in the day Chris Wilson, who has worked with trees in Santa Paula and Ojai for years, and is widely admired among those around here who know about trees and wood-working, came out to look at our situation and our other trees. He pointed out that the oak that fell had been severely wounded decades ago. He looked at the numerous other oaks overhanging structures in our area and shrugged. Even though they towered directly over the buildings, he said they looked healthy.
"I’d live there," he said. "I’d let my kids live there." He added that in his experience, healthy oaks rarely fall, and even when oaks do fall, they tend to cause less damage than people expect.
"They might poke a hole or two in your roof," he said. "But their weight is well-distributed. I’ve never seen an oak bring down a bearing wall."
And when we looked around in the debris under our fallen oak, we found that all three of the plants that had been living on the fringes of its shade were fine, even though they lay directly in the path of the fallen tree. Branches were all around them, and the trunk lay heavily on the ground, but Chris’s little squash was untouched.