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UPDATED: Willingdon Beach tree drops unexpectedly; witness recounts 'terrifying' incident

“It was terrifying not knowing if that tree had taken somebody’s life or injured somebody severely." ~ Heather Ellis
CORDONED OFF: City crews roped off a large tree that fell on the lawn at Willingdon Beach on August 16. Fortunately, even though there were people in the vicinity of the tree when it dropped unexpectedly, there were no injuries.

A giant tree fell at Willingdon Beach around sunset on August 16, and fortunately, nobody was injured or killed when the tree dropped unexpectedly.

Eyewitness Heather Ellis said she and two of her friends went paddleboarding from Willingdon Beach to Second Beach for the evening and caught the sunset.

“It was a beautiful evening,” said Ellis. “We had just got out of the water and were carrying our boards up to our vehicles in the parking lot. We had stopped in that exact spot on the lawn where the tree fell to readjust, within a minute of it dropping.

“We picked our paddleboards back up and I was deciding whether to go around the tree or cut through the swings. A mom and her son were on the swings so that’s what prompted me to go around the tree.”

Ellis said she had gone through the playground, halfway up to the parking lot, when she heard the tree start to go.

“I thought somebody let off fireworks,” said Ellis. “That’s when I turned around and the tree was just falling through the sky before it hit the ground. The noise caught my attention enough that I turned my head around just to see the pollen shaking off the branches and the tree hitting the ground.”

Ellis said at that moment, her adrenalin spiked. She said she has been a first aid attendant and had been a lifeguard for more than 10 years, so the only thing she could think about was whether anyone was under the tree.

“I had this moment of hesitation where I didn’t want to see what could have happened, but at that moment, if it was me, I would want somebody coming to check on me,” said Ellis. “Without thinking, my body moved before my brain and I dropped everything. I was fumbling my phone out of my pocket. I didn’t know if I needed to call 911 but somebody else already had. I just ran down and was yelling, asking if anyone needed help. I was terrified for what could have happened.

“Thankfully, nobody responded needing help and everybody said they were okay. I checked in with the fire department as they were pulling up and told them what I experienced. They didn’t know if people were underneath and they were grabbing all of their gear. For all they knew, there could have been multiple people under that tree.”

City of Powell River chief administrative officer Russell Brewer said as soon as the tree fell over, fire crews were on scene quickly, the parks crew and supervisor were there, and he was also onsite.

Brewer said the morning after the tree fell, the first priority, because Willingdon Beach is an archaeological site, and because soil was exposed, was having Tla’amin Nation representatives and an archaeologist at the scene.

“We met down there to make a game plan on what to do next,” said Brewer. “Because it’s a safety hazard, too, that was part of the consideration.

“Some of the tree has been removed as part of that plan.”

Brewer said the tree site had been fenced off to make sure the site is safe and also to protect the archaeological component.

He said adjacent trees were assessed to make sure they are still safe.

“It looks like we won’t need to fall those trees,” added Brewer. “We may do a bit of pruning of the tree crowns to make sure they are more wind-firm. We’ll assess the rest of the trees down there, too, at some point.”

Brewer said most of the wood had been taken away. He said some of the larger wood will remain on the beach as features, such as for sitting. The end use for the rest is likely firewood for the campsite, according to Brewer.

“We are really fortunate, just because of the time the tree happened to fall,” said Brewer. “There were still a lot of people around. We’re just fortunate that no one was hurt.”

Brewer said it looks like the tree that fell had some root rot and when conditions get dry, trees do fall over because the soil becomes so dry and there is not a lot of moisture holding the roots in the soil.

Ellis said as soon as the fire department got there and she knew nobody was in life-threatening danger, she had to get away from the beach.

“My adrenalin was through the roof so I took off as soon as possible,” she added.

She said her main fear was that someone had been pinned under the tree and died.

“It was terrifying not knowing if that tree had taken somebody’s life or injured somebody severely,” said Ellis. “It was busy enough at the beach that I am shocked nobody got caught by that tree.”

Ellis returned to the scene on the morning of August 17 and said she got goosebumps, and her hands were shaking. She said the city had coned off the entire area and there were city staff members at the site.

“You know that people were taking it seriously and it was relieving to see the playground closed,” said Ellis. “There were some guardian angels looking after people. It was definitely an eye-opening, remarkable experience.”

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