The Douglas fir that toppled onto a car and killed a man in Seward Park last month was nearly completely rotten at its base, a certified arborist who examined the tree says, estimating it “was 90 to 95 percent rotten at the base.”

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The Douglas fir that toppled onto a car and killed a man in Seward Park during last month’s big windstorm was nearly completely rotten at its base, the point where the tree failed, according to a professional arborist who independently examined the tree.

Favero Greenforest, a certified arborist since 1992 who inspected the tree’s stump and snapped-off top that remain at the park, estimated the tree “was 90 to 95 percent rotten at the base” when high winds struck March 13.

“What I think happened is the wind blew strong enough that it tipped up the root plate, partly because of the wet soil, but also because there was so much rot in the roots,” Greenforest said.

“Then, as the tree tilted, there was no strength at the base, so the tree just buckled and fell.”

The internal decay likely wasn’t outwardly noticeable, but it contributed to the tree fall that killed 42-year-old Eric Medalle, Greenforest said.

The arborist’s opinion appears to contradict what two park officials told The Seattle Times last month about why the tree came down.

Asked whether anything was wrong with the tree, Jon Jainga, manager of the city parks’ urban-forestry division, responded: “No, it was in good condition, as far as we know.”

Arborist Favero Greenforest, who lives nearby, analyzes the gnarled stump of a tree in Seward Park that fell and killed a man last month. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Arborist Favero Greenforest, who lives nearby, analyzes the gnarled stump of a tree in Seward Park that fell and killed a man last month. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Jainga’s comments came more than a week after city workers had hauled the bulk of the fallen evergreen to a maintenance yard, where city arborists and risk managers examined it as part of an ongoing investigation.

On the same day Jainga made his comments, parks spokesman David Takami mentioned nothing about tree rot when telling a reporter about the investigation’s preliminary findings.

“It fell because of the strong winds and saturated soils,” Takami said then.

On Tuesday, both parks officials said they weren’t aware of any rot issues at the time they made the statements.

“We can’t comment on the condition of the tree at this point,” Takami said Tuesday. “What I said was accurate to my knowledge at the time.”

The parks department is “working with our risk management and legal group, and our investigation is not complete,” Jainga said Tuesday.

“It’s really easy for folks to go out and look at the base and come to conclusions,” Jainga said. “But we’re looking at the entire system, not just the base itself. We’re being very thorough.”

Medalle, a married father of two and an artist for Pokemon Company International, was killed instantly by the wind-toppled tree while out for a Sunday drive through the park with his toddler daughter. The tree, which crushed the front end of Medalle’s sport-utility vehicle, missed the back seat, where the child survived with minor injuries.

By its outward appearance, the tree likely would have looked healthy, with its internal decay hidden from the eye, Greenforest said. Only a small portion within the trunk of the 80- to 110-year-old Douglas fir remained alive and sound, but it was enough to keep the bark and foliage healthy looking, he said.

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Still, a tree expert could have detected its decay, Greenforest said.

“If someone had hit this tree with a mallet, they would’ve known instantly it was rotten,” he said. “But maybe no one hit it with a mallet because that’s not prescribed in the park’s risk-management policy and procedures.”

Greenforest, who sometimes serves as an expert witness in tree-fatality cases, said municipalities typically employ a variety of tree-risk-assessment procedures for parks. In areas lightly used by the public, trees may be rarely assessed and then only at a basic visual level, he said.

“In high-use areas, the trees might get assessed more frequently and at a deeper level with hand-tools,” beyond a simple visual inspection, Greenforest said. “With the road and parking lot here, I would say this is a high-use area.”

According to the Seward Park Hazard Tree Management Plan, parks officials in 2004 assessed “all trees capable of falling in pedestrian and traffic zones” to assign a “hazard ranking” for potentially problematic trees. That assessment targeted trees with poor health, root damage, rot and other problems.

In all, the assessment identified 85 potentially hazardous trees, with action recommended for 60 of them “in highly occupied areas of the park.” The Douglas fir that failed during last month’s windstorm wasn’t among trees identified as potential hazards.

But the plan also noted “trees can change in health and stability over a relatively short period of time.”

“It is essential for Urban Forestry Staff to perform annual monitoring of all trees near identified target areas,” the management plan stated. “The list of hazard trees … can be used as a baseline, but it is important that staff observes any changes to adjacent trees that did not appear to have issues at the time of this assessment.”

Simply looking at trees to assess their health may not be enough, the plan added.

“Other more invasive evaluation methods, such as the Resistograph®, increment borer, or a small-gauge bit drill, should be utilized to assess the amount of sound wood present in strategic parts of the tree,” it said.

Jainga said Tuesday he didn’t know when parks personnel last inspected the tree that fell, or to what extent it may have been inspected.

“In the last year here, we don’t have any record of inspecting that particular tree,” he said.

Because Seward Park contains a natural stand of old-growth trees that existed before the city, parks officials don’t know details about each tree’s history, Jainga said.

“We don’t inventory every single tree in a natural setting like we do in our developed parks,” he said, adding that crews regularly conduct visual tree inspections at all parks.

Deputy parks Superintendent Christopher Williams said Tuesday that due to budget constraints, the department has just eight tree-maintenance experts who are responsible for more than 200,000 trees in parks citywide.

“A lot of our management plans are aspirational to the extent that we have funding to implement the plan,” Williams said.

Politics can also play a role in tree management. In 2005, the parks department revised a plan calling to cut down five identified hazard trees in Seward Park’s interior forest after that proposal caused an uproar among some park boosters.

Greenforest, who lives near Seward Park and first inspected the fallen tree’s stump during one of his routine walks, isn’t the only person who noticed its decay.

Al Smith, a retired carpenter who lives nearby and spent thousands of hours at the park as a volunteer forest steward, said he prodded the stump with an awl a few days after the windstorm.

“I jammed it into the center, and it sunk right in,” Smith said. “It was obviously rotten.”

Later, after reading comments from Jainga and Takami in The Times’ March 23 story, Smith said he became so upset, he called Takami and another park official.

“I just wanted to let them know that they were passing out inaccurate information and that some of us are aware that tree was rotten,” Smith said. “So any study they come up with, they’re going to have to factor that in.”

The Times formally requested the Parks Department’s report on the fallen tree on March 30. Officials said Tuesday they didn’t know when it would be completed.