TUSTIN — Looking at the towering, 125-year-old eucalyptus being cut down by Tustin city workers early Monday, arborist Harold Mitchell couldn't help but wonder how the tree's fate would have differed in the wild.
A deadly fungus sealed the tree's future. But its immediate demise was the product of location, location, location.
"In a forest, the tree falls on a bear," Mitchell said. "But here, it falls on people or a house--and that makes a huge difference."
The 50-foot tree was planted more than a century ago alongside two now-giant eucalyptuses. They were a gift to the area from city founder Columbus Tustin, and located in front of what is known as the historic McCharles House on C Street. About a year ago, people started noticing a shelf of bright yellow growth around the tree's base.
"It was this beautiful, multicolored growth," said Audrey Heredia, co-owner of the Victorian-style McCharles House. But the growth, which crept higher up the tree, turned out to be deadly.
In November and January, two city-hired arborists--including Mitchell--inspected the eucalyptus. The diagnosis was clear: The tree, which took root during Ulysses S. Grant's presidency, had been attacked by sulfur fungus.
Officials told Heredia they feared the tree could pose a safety hazard. It might not die soon, Mitchell said, but it would be anybody's guess when it would topple--and that was too big a risk. To make matters worse, officials said the tree had not been properly topped in the past, increasing the chance of collapse.
Under the best circumstances, eucalyptuses can live more than 200 years, Mitchell said. They were imported from Australia in the 19th century and helped spruce up the once arid Southern California landscape. But the trees can pose problems, especially in urban settings.
In 1998, two Pomona College students were killed when an El Nino-related storm knocked an already weakened eucalyptus onto their car. The highly flammable trees have even played notorious parts in some of the state's largest fires, experts say.
On Monday, city workers used metal cables from a crane to secure massive pieces of the tree as they were cut off with a chain saw.
The work started in the early morning and dragged into the afternoon.
So far, the other two trees have escaped decay, a city official said.
"We weren't looking forward to doing this. That's why we got second and third opinions," said Pat Madsen, an administrator and certified arborist for Tustin.
People stopped by throughout the day to say goodbye to the tree that has been a beloved part of the landscape. Resident Joyce Thompson, 45, took photographs. She said it was clear the tree had to go.
"It hurts to see it go, but when a tree attains that kind of size and has those kinds of problems, you don't want to be the person who walks under it or lives in a house in front of it," she said. "They are beautiful, though."
However, not all will be lost. The city left part of the stump for Heredia so she could have a bench carved out of it. Other rounds from the tree will be used as steppingstones in a garden of flowers and herbs that Heredia and her daughter plan next to the McCharles House, which doubles as a tearoom and restaurant.
"We're going to have a plaque on the bench to give tribute to the tree," Heredia said. "It's sad to see this sentinel go, but safety comes first, and the tree will be remembered."