Storm downs treasured oak tree in Palo Alto neighborhood

'This is one of those oaks you spend your life maintaining,' says resident Martha Shirk

The weekend storm that blew through Palo Alto led to the fall of a treasured live oak tree in the Barron Park neighborhood early Monday morning.

Martha Shirk, 65, a journalist, woke up around 1:30 a.m. Monday to the sound of a crash in her backyard and rushed outside to find the tree down.

She compared the size of the live oak that was the centerpiece of her backyard on Los Robles Avenue to 20 regular-sized trees and was thankful the crash didn’t happen during the day.

"Every time there’s a storm you’re worried about these big oaks," she said.

The rain that accumulated over the weekend weighed down the tree that stood in the back corner of her yard. A next-door neighbor's home was left with some broken windows and roof damage from the fall. (The Weekly's attempts to contact the neighbor have not yet been successful.)

Shirk said she spent nearly $5,000 to prune the tree every three to four years at her two-story home, where she has lived with her significant other for about 20 years.

Multiple arborists have told her the tree could be 150 to 400 years old, according to Shirk.

"This is one of those oaks you spend your life maintaining," she said.

Neighbors dropped by her house this morning and expressed their love for the downed tree, which was one of the oldest in the area, according to Shirk.

The large live oak also drew in a variety of creatures including scores of birds, dozens of squirrels and a resident owl that's been around for five years. She's contacted a beekeeper to remove three separate hives filled with honeycombs and bees.

All that remains standing is the main trunk that was 6 feet wide and a branch the size of a regular tree that she might keep as a sort of tombstone, if it doesn’t pose a risk.

"Anyone lucky to have a tree like this would know a loss like this," Shirk said.

Two Palo Alto public works crews responded to 16 calls of downed trees related to the weekend storm; the most recent one came in this morning from the 800 block of Warren Way next to Oregon Expressway, city Urban Forester Walter Passmore said.

Some trees were uprooted, including ones in the 900 block of University Avenue and at Alma Street and Churchill Avenue near the train tracks, he said.

Passmore wasn't surprised by the combination of windy and rainy conditions that kept crews busy throughout the weekend.

"It seems like the residents were mostly prepared as well, and everyone stayed calm and reported issues as they needed to," Passmore said.


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9 people like this
Posted by Nancy J
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2017 at 10:58 am

I owned a house in Menlo with a lovely huge oak tree that I had pruned many times and eventually cabled since it kept sending out huge heavy limbs beyond my small lot. Once a huge limb fell in the back yard during a wind storm..I had to sell my property a few years ago but still have an emotional tie to that tree. I extend my condolences for your loss..I can empathize.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 10, 2017 at 11:40 am

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Don't Be Cruel
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Don't Be Cruel is a registered user.

Trees give us shade, give birds and squirrels shelter, and, in the case of many oak trees, give our children tree swings, tree houses, and endless climbing fun.

When we lived in another city we were blessed to have an oak tree in our large front yard. I have fond memories of picnics beneath its shady bows, neighborhood children playing under and on it, and my father-in-law building
a tree house, ladder and climbing rope in this sturdy oak.

Many trees are beautiful, but oak trees are FAMILY members!

3 people like this
Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2017 at 2:22 pm

To Ms. Shirk,

I send you my condolences on the loss of your beloved ancient tree. I've been there, and it is a terrible loss, indeed.

Blessings to you for having been a fine custodian of that splendid tree for as long as you could. Mother Nature's storm took it. So sorry.

Like this comment
Posted by JC
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2017 at 3:59 pm


We used to have a large and very old 4 foot wide oak tree in our cul-de-sac. It used to have 5 large branches then one branch broke off then another leaving the tree with 3 main branches but it was stable for 60 years. A neighbor became concerned that one branch was creaking more and more loudly and was afraid it was going to fall on her house. The city arborist saw to it that the branch was cut back so her house would be safe.

Unfortunately with only two main branches and part of a third main branch the tree lost its symmetry and when it rained one day the weight of the water on the leaves and branches caused first one branch to break off then the other. Our old specimen oak was now occupying most of our street.

Now the scary part. My next door neighbor and wife were backing out of their driveway. They reached the street and turned to go around the cul-de-sac when they heard the thump of the first branch. They went around to leave the street when they had to stop because the second branch had covered the street preventing them from exiting. IF THEY HAD LEFT 2 SECONDS LATER THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN CRUSHED BY THE HUGE FIRST FALLING BRANCH. A FEW SECONDS LATER THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN HIT BY THE SECOND BRANCH.

I hope my little tale will cause readers to realize that no tree lives forever and they can be very dangerous when they get old and rickety.

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