In the tree-hugging Pacific Northwest, what happens when a powerful symbol of collective identity strikes back?

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Cason and Philip Wolcott chose to buy the house on a small Gresham side street because a large grove of majestic trees abutted its backyard.

When a neighbor died shortly after they moved in six years ago, they were among the local residents who successfully pushed for the city to buy her property, which abutted their backyard, and add the trees to an existing undeveloped city park rather than allowing a developer to cut them down.

“We had this beautiful green space behind us. We wanted the trees there,” Cason Wolcott said.

But earlier this month, as a weeklong ice-snow-and-wind storm launched its assault on the Portland area, the trees they had loved suddenly turned hostile.

“We were sitting on the couch, watching the trees sway and Philip started to yell, ‘This one’s us! This one’s us!’ and the tree cracked, turned and started falling,” Cason Wolcott recalled. The couple had just enough time to grab their two dogs and a cat and dive to the floor.

The tree landed with a thud in the kitchen, 5 feet away from the living room where they had been sitting, slicing the house in half. Debris rained down. Water gushed from broken pipes.

“It was like a bomb went off,” she said.


Ten days later, the two watched, still in disbelief, as a crane removed the massive tree trunk from what used to be their home.

“Now I understand the power of those trees. I’m not mad at them, but I’m a little hesitant to go back,” Cason Wolcott said.

The two aren’t alone in their newfound ambivalence. January’s storm felled hundreds of massive trees across the region. Falling trees killed an elderly man inside a Lake Oswego home and a woman trapped inside a Southeast Portland motor home, and they injured countless other residents. The trees crushed houses, cars, power lines and power poles, causing millions in property damage and tens of thousands of power outages.

[An Oregon teen saw 3 people electrocuted by a fallen power line. Then she risked her life to save a baby.]

In a place known for its lush green spaces, the experience of large trees collapsing on such a massive scale has led to a new anxiety about our coexistence with the cherished emblem of Portland and the region.

It has also led some to question their municipalities’ local tree rules and to call for more tree removal and even a change in the type of trees cities plant in the future.

“City leaders need to rethink tree codes and cap how big they allow these trees to be in urban areas,” former state Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn, now a newly minted lawyer, tweeted last week. “Large stand-alone trees won’t withstand wind/ice, and they put lives in harm’s way when they fall.”

The damage has been all the more unsettling because many of the trees uprooted and damaged by the storm, according to arborists and local news reports, were Douglas firs, the region’s iconic tree and its most common conifer. The Douglas fir is Oregon’s official state tree, a powerful symbol that graces the state flag and most passenger car license plates.

After the storm, one user on the social platform Reddit presented a new state flag: It features a toppled Douglas fir.


The city of Portland has more than 4 million trees – 218,000 street trees, 1.2 million park trees and 2.9 million trees on private property. The trees are a source of pride for the city, though Portland’s tree canopy has been shrinking in recent years, raising alarms.

During the recent storm, Portland’s Urban Forestry division received more than 700 reports of trees or large branches that fell onto roads and other city-managed property, said Mark Ross, a spokesperson with Portland Parks & Recreation. Washington County counted more than 160 fallen trees and Lake Oswego, more than 125, with more falling in other nearby cities. Those counts don’t include trees that keeled over onto private property.

While Ross acknowledged that the storm was one of the most destructive to trees in recent years, he also noted that the vast majority of Portland’s trees withstood the onslaught.

City officials and arborists said the storm created a perfect combination of conditions for downing trees, including ground saturation, snow and ice buildup on the tree canopy and unusually strong east winds.

“The trees turned into these huge wind sails and they were much heavier than they typically are,” said Curtis Falbo, an arborist with Wind Thin Tree Service.

Climate change – including extreme heat and dryness – may also have stressed the trees, making them less healthy over time, Ross said. And root problems may have weakened their hold on soil.

But not all tree failures are predictable, he said. In some cases, the storm took out perfectly healthy trees.

“Mature trees that fell in this storm event withstood the effects of previous weather events,” Ross said. “And some dead trees or trees which have experienced impacts of pests, disease, or are towards the ends of their lives remained standing while some healthy trees were damaged.”



The falling trees and the devastation they wrought over the course of a long, cold week left many people traumatized and anxious – and rethinking their relationship with trees, a natural reaction, said Thomas Joseph Doherty, a Portland psychologist who specializes in how climate change affects mental health.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Doherty said. “As weather patterns are changing and becoming more erratic, it creates unexpected levels of damage that we’re not used to and which are really unsettling for people. These are legitimate losses to mourn, but we also have to learn from these disasters and figure out what we can do better in the future.”

Some people may take a lot longer to recover than others, he said.

Jose Ruiz Valentine and his wife, Addisun Salazar, love nature. Three years ago, the young couple were thrilled to rent a house on a large lot just underneath Powell Butte, the 600-acre natural area in outer Southeast Portland with trees and trails galore.

“We would go out our back door and see Powell Butte. It was beautiful,” Ruiz Valentine said.

“It felt like we were living in a big forest. I loved the air quality,” Salazar added.

In the shadow of those mighty trees they raised their daughter Layla, now 4, and planned to welcome their new baby later this winter. But on the Saturday when the storm began, their love of nature and trees was severely tested.

While Ruiz Valentine was at work Jan. 13 and Layla was at a grandmother’s house, Salazar, home alone, tried to nap in an upstairs bedroom. Suddenly, she saw the roof shake and heard a loud crashing sound. She thought it was an earthquake. She then saw a single sharp branch pierce the bedroom ceiling 2 feet away from her. Debris showered the floor.


She scooted against the wall and backed herself into a corner until the shaking stopped. What she could not see was that the wind had uprooted a large Douglas fir on the property and the tree had plunged into the house, crushing the roof like an accordion.

Salazar wasn’t physically hurt. She called Ruiz Valentine, then got up and tried to open the door. She noticed the door frame was cracked and the wall was bent out as if about to collapse. She couldn’t open the door or the window. She was trapped.

She dialed 911, but the only help that arrived was her husband’s stepfather who eventually climbed up the tree, broke a window in the house, got in and then brought Salazar down with him.

The tree had caused the house to cave in, crushing all the doors. It decimated the three bedrooms, the staircase and the garage, rendering the family instantly homeless.

Their renters’ insurance has yet to reimburse them for any losses and their landlord does not need to pay Portland’s mandatory renter relocation fee because a natural disaster rendered the house uninhabitable.

Still, they consider themselves lucky. Salazar survived. And a local nonprofit is helping the couple pay for an AirBnB while they look for a new place to live.

Their next home, said Salazar, likely won’t have trees.

“I never really thought something would change the way that I look at trees,” she said. “But I get really bad anxiety now hearing the wind in the trees at night. And when a branch broke at the AirBnB where we’re staying, it just startled me a lot.”


Falbo, the arborist with Wind Thin Tree Service, has had a front seat to this type of anxiety.

Since the storm hit, the certified arborist and risk assessor has put in long days examining fallen trees and guiding his crew in removing their massive trunks from homes.

He has listened to countless stories of near-misses and of people trapped by trees in collapsed bedrooms, has watched those who survived cry over what was lost or frantically look for their pets in the ruins, their possessions exposed among the debris, their lives in disarray.

Last Saturday morning, Falbo pulled up in his 20-year-old truck to the Wolcotts’ house in Gresham. The sight was dramatic but no longer surprised him. Over the past two weeks, he had witnessed more than three dozen homes with similar damage.


His small crew moved quickly across the still-icy yard, throwing branches into the wood chipper, sawing the upended roots, then crawling onto the tree trunk to hook it up to a crane. The crane pulled the tree straight out the front of the house.

Cason and Philip Wolcott stood on the sidewalk, recording videos with their phones.

The city of Gresham said it had found root rot in 2021 in some of the trees behind the Wolcotts’ backyard – an area part of a small undeveloped park called Southwest Community Park.

“The City developed a plan to systematically remove and evaluate several trees over the next few years. The specific tree that fell on the home was not known by the City to be infected with laminated root rot,” Gresham spokesperson Sarah Cagann told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Many of the fallen trees that Falbo has assessed this month had shallow roots with signs of root damage, including laminated root rot, a tree disease caused by a fungal pathogen that decays the root system. Decayed and shallow roots are unable to hold trees upright in a strong wind, he said. It’s unclear, he said, if those root problems are caused by climate warming or result from trees growing in an urban environment with few other trees to support them underground.

Meanwhile, Falbo’s company has fielded hundreds of frantic calls in recent days from residents whose trees, weakened by the storm, appear to be leaning or swaying. Some have also asked Falbo to remove perfectly healthy trees that simply happen to grow close to their homes.


“It really takes a piece out of you,” said Falbo. “People are going through such grief because the trees are going through their homes. But also, after the storm, those who live with these majestic trees don’t want them anymore. That’s why they bought their houses, because of the trees. And now they want me to cut them down. It gives us arborists a lot of work, but we don’t want this kind of work.”

Friends of Trees, a nonprofit organization that has planted thousands of trees in the Portland area, echoed those worries.

“It’s very common when there’s a storm like this that people become fearful of trees – it’s very understandable, but then they take proactive measures to remove or improperly prune trees, measures that are sometimes guided by fear,” said Megan Van de Mark, deputy director with Friend of Trees.

The storm was a good reminder that Portland and its residents should invest more effort in tree care, Van de Mark said. This should be done under the guidance of certified tree arborists, she said.

Tree care includes watering and mulching trees for up to five years after they’re planted, but also regularly pruning mature trees over the course of their lifetime. Improper tree care can lead to structural issues, including root problems and large loose branches that can come down with strong winds, she said.

Portland residents and the Urban Forestry Commission, an advisory body to Portland’s Urban Forestry division that Van de Mark sits on, have been advocating for years for the city to take over street tree maintenance, she said. Street trees are those planted on city property in the public right-of-way, usually between the sidewalk and the curb.

Residents currently are responsible for caring for those trees - maintenance that can be costly and time-consuming. On Thursday, the Portland Clean Energy Fund Committee discussed proposals by Commissioner Carmen Rubio for how to spend a surplus $540 million in unanticipated tax revenue the fund is projected to bring in. One of the proposals: award $100 million to the city for street tree maintenance over five years. The committee will likely vote on the proposals in February.

“That’s historic. It will take the burden off of the adjacent property owners to do the street tree maintenance,” Van de Mark said, adding the city would still need to find a long-term funding source for the program.

The Urban Forestry Commission has also advocated for the city to dedicate funding for lower-income homeowners who need help paying for an arborist to prune trees or to remove a dead or dangerous tree from their property, she said, expenses that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, but the city has not come up with the money yet.

“The city is very committed to an equitable tree canopy. And in order to do that, you have to remove the barriers to tree ownership and care,” Van de Mark said.


Some Portland residents say the destruction caused by the trees this month should cause city leaders to go further and rethink the city’s tree removal and pruning restrictions.

Portland implemented more uniform regulations for tree preservation and removal in 2015 in an effort to simplify previous rules and protect Portland’s dwindling tree canopy. But some believe the tree code, which runs 100 pages long, is onerous and overly costly to local residents.

While care and maintenance of street trees under the code is the responsibility of the closest property owner, homeowners are required to get a $50 permit to prune any street trees with branches more than a half-inch in diameter as well as any older treees. A permit is also required to remove any street tree and only trees that are found to be dead, dying or dangerous receive removal permits.

Similarly, the city requires permits for pruning and removing some trees on private properties, particularly larger trees, historic trees or those in environmentally sensitive zones – and requires replanting when trees are removed. It costs $100 to remove up to 3 trees.

In at least one case during the most recent storm, the city denied an earlier request for tree removal and the tree in question toppled onto a family’s house.

When Joel and Sarah Bond bought their first home in Southwest Portland two and a half years ago, they immediately applied for a permit to remove two massive Douglas firs in their backyard.

The trees were beautiful, Joel Bond said, but one of the pair was clearly leaning in the direction of their home. And every winter, he’d seen perfectly healthy trees fall in Portland, so he figured it would just be a matter of time before his did the same.

Last year, the city refused to issue a removal permit to the Bonds because the tree “appears healthy and not dead, dying or dangerous,” the permit denial letter said.

A city inspector took less than five minutes to look at the trees and told the family it was perfectly normal for them to lean and sway, Joel Bond said.

But on Jan. 13, the leaning tree – a 150-foot Douglas fir – crashed onto the couple’s roof. A 10-inch in diameter branch branch stabbed through the bathroom ceiling, 6 feet away from the couple’s 6-year-old daughter who was playing in a bedroom next door, he said. She was unharmed.

“It was scary,” Bond said. “But I also felt a sense of relief, because I’ve been dreading this and waiting for this to happen for two and a half years, the whole time we lived there. It finally did and we’re extremely lucky that nobody died.”

Bond said he’s disappointed the city’s tree permit system didn’t keep his family and property safe. He said the inspection should have been more rigorous – a sonic tomograph (a tree ultrasound) of the fallen tree showed it was rotten inside, he said, even though it looked outwardly healthy.

“I’m certainly not for people just cutting down trees whenever and wherever they feel like it. And I understand the need for a healthy tree canopy,” Bond said. “But I do think the city’s mindset needs to be when this tree falls – not if it falls – where is it going to fall and how bad is the destruction going to be?”

And while he understands the storm provided a particularly harsh convergence of conditions, he expects climate change to bring more extreme weather.

“Every single year will be unprecedented,” he said. “That needs to be built into the city’s decision model” when it comes to permits.

Otherwise, he said, “It seems like the system is basically, make sure you have homeowners insurance and cross your fingers.”

So now, in addition to filing insurance claims and finding a new place to live, the Bonds – like all other homeowners whose homes were damaged by fallen trees – must pay for a $100 retroactive tree removal permit from the city to remove the stump that remains of their Douglas fir.

They must also, at their own expense, replant another tree in its place.


While the current tree regulations may be imperfect, they’re critical to the city retaining a healthy mature urban forest that protects its residents from extreme heat and pollution, said Van de Mark with Friends of Trees.

Loosening the tree code, she said, might lead to people taking out healthy trees or improperly topping or trimming trees, which could destabilize them and make them more prone to failure.

Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees Parks & Recreation and the Urban Forestry program, declined to directly comment on whether the current permit system should be reformed.

Ryan’s spokesperson, T. J. McHugh, said the Urban Forestry team is updating the city’s Urban Forest Management Plan and this may provide a stage to re-examine policies related to trees.

“Climate change events like the 2021 heat dome and last week’s ice storm factor into those updates and changes in policy,” McHugh said in a statement. “City Council looks forward to receiving the final recommendations and will implement code changes and policy to support the findings.”

Urban Forestry officials stressed that while large trees pose risks if not properly maintained, they provide countless community benefits – including shade, good air quality, wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration – that smaller trees simply cannot match. During extreme heat, which has killed dozens people in Portland in recent years, large trees are the first line of defense, Ross said.

Because of this, Douglas firs are on the city’s approved street tree planting list. And Portland needs to continue planting trees, especially large trees, at a fast clip and caring for them to maintain and expand its tree canopy, he said.

“Although limiting planting to smaller, ‘safer’ species might seem beneficial, it would significantly reduce the valuable canopy services large trees provide, which are crucial for environmental health and heat reduction in urban areas,” Ross said.

City officials, environmental advocates and Falbo, the arborist, stressed that tree removal should be a last-resort option.

“You have to think about what a tree provides. We need those trees and it takes a while to grow them back,” Falbo said. “So it’s really important that people keep an eye on their trees and give them the attention they need.”