Eucalyptus grove on Hwy 101 presents a hazard for motorists

Two people were killed and five were injured in an early morning crash on Dec. 12.
Fallen eucalyptus tree showing shallow roots. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Fallen eucalyptus tree showing shallow roots. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Irregular growth on a eucalyptus tree trunk. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Irregular growth on a eucalyptus tree trunk. Photo by Robert Eliason.

A recent fatal accident on Highway 101 from a fallen blue gum eucalyptus tree has brought to light the hazards of traveling in that area.

According to Eric Meier’s The Wood Database, the blue gum weighs about 51 pounds per cubic foot, can grow up to 180 feet tall, and is 75% denser than oak. A fully grown tree can weigh as much as 90 tons.

The California Highway Patrol reported that at approximately 3:25 a.m. on Dec. 12, during a rainstorm, a falling blue gum eucalyptus tree in the grove on Hwy 101 just south of San Juan Bautista caused a three-car accident with two fatalities in the southbound lane. 

According to the report the tree landed on a 2005 Toyota Prius traveling in the #2 (or “slow”) lane, blocking the road. Soon after, a 2018 GMC Sierra and a 2018 BMW, both traveling in the #1  (or “fast”) lane, hit the tree, causing major damage to the front windshield and cab of both cars.

The driver of the Prius, Jaqueline Melendez of Watsonville, and the passengers, Isabell V. Figueroa of Royal Oaks and Magaly Cortes-Medina of Watsonville, were taken to Natividad Hospital in Salinas. 

The driver of the Sierra, a resident of San Tan Valley, Arizona, who has not been publicly identified, died from his injuries. 

The driver of the BMW, Brianna Giselle Avina, and her left rear passenger, Anthony Solis, suffered head injuries and were also taken to Natividad Hospital in Salinas. The right front passenger, Ezequiel Sanchez, died from his injuries. All three were from Gonzales.  

The CHP closed the road for four hours to conduct its investigation. According to the report, drugs and alcohol did not appear to factor in this crash.

Without core samples, there is no way to tell the age of the grove on Hwy 101, but it is well established. Jimmy Stewart drove through it in a scene from the 1958 film “Vertigo,” and it looks, 64 years later, much the same as it did then. Walking along the edges of the grove at the turnoff to Rocks Road on Hwy 101 north, the evidence of downed trees is all around—stumps on their sides beside shallow holes, with roots in the air.

“The blue gum is infamous for falling over and having limbs come off,” said tree specialist Wayne Tyson. “One of the factors involved is just high school physics, the lever. The tree is the lever, and the height is its arm. The longer the arm, the less effort it takes at the top of it to exert disproportionate pressure at the pivot point. It exceeds the ability of the tree to resist falling. It can happen in high wind or no wind at all.”

Tyson said that even simple maintenance of a grove, such as clearing out the undergrowth or cleaning out the culverts between the trees and a road, could weaken the trees enough to make them easier to topple.

“These trees have very shallow roots that are easy to damage,” he said. “That makes them the first to fall over with severe wind, especially if the ground is saturated.”

Eucalyptus first came to California with Australians who were lured to the state by the 1849 Gold Rush. Speculators started planting the fast-growing trees as a source of lumber, and they were also commonly planted as windbreaks. Unfortunately, they turned out to be almost useless for building or furniture making, but with an ideal climate in the coastal regions and no control over their spread, the trees became invasive.

They are also remarkably flammable, as they are packed with the oil prized for its aroma and medical use, and they helped fuel the Oakland firestorm of 1991.

Personal injury attorney Edward A. Smith, who specializes in tree law, said that trees falling onto roads is fairly common. 

“I have the Google web crawler working the internet for me,” he said. I get results almost every day of a tree falling somewhere in the English-speaking world. This accident was just a coincidence of timing.”

Smith said that, in many places, eucalyptus trees are dangerous to the public, but there is resistance to removing them. “They are the third rail of local politics,” he said. “It’s just like attacking motherhood to attack a tree, no matter how bad or unsafe it is, but people just don’t understand. And there’s just been a riot practically every time somebody touches one.”

Caltrans Public Information Officer Kevin Drabinski said there is no plan to remove that grove of trees, as not all the plantings are inside what is considered within Caltrans’ right of way. He emphasized that his department will continue its work on the preventative side to minimize risks and keep the state highway system safe.

“Trees along the state highway system in the five counties of our district are inspected annually,” he said. “Caltrans not only inspects trees within our right of way, but we also inspect trees on neighboring properties if we determine they could come into play on our roadway. When we discover any issues with trees, we develop work plans that address them to help mitigate the risks.”

Drabinski could not immediately provide data on the number and frequency of eucalyptus tree falls in that area of Hwy 101 but said he would try to follow up on it after the first of the year.

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.