Weight of the snow taking a toll on Boston’s tree cover

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / January 13, 2011

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When the old fir finally gave way beneath a thickening robe of snow, the 50-foot-tall tree came crashing down with a thud that sounded like a small avalanche.

The century-old evergreen fell early yesterday on the Tudor-style house of Jim Hennigan Jr., taking out a front portico and leaving a gash in one of his bedrooms, where snow blew in the rest of the day.

“There was a big bang,’’ said Hennigan, 83, whose family has lived in the house in Jamaica Plain for more than 70 years and who cherished the old tree. “A neighbor called us, saying we have a tree in our front yard and that it knocked down part of the house. At least no one got hurt.’’

The fallen fir was among hundreds of elms, gingkoes, chestnuts, and other trees throughout Boston and beyond to suffer a sudden demise under the weight of the wet snow that blanketed the state during yesterday’s storm.

Commissioner Antonia M. Pollak of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department said the city alone received hundreds of reports of fallen trees by yesterday afternoon, well before last night’s freeze was likely to make things worse. During the snowstorm last month, the city received only six calls for downed trees.

“This is a very different storm, because we’re dealing with very wet, heavy, sticking snow,’’ she said. “It’s really wreaking havoc with the trees. It’s going to take us weeks to assess the overall damage.’’

Pollak said losses to the urban forest occurred in every city neighborhood.

She said the fallen trees blocked roads, crushed cars, and one sodden branch hit a woman walking through the South End. She was spared serious injury, Pollak said.

“This is a significant loss of the city’s tree canopy,’’ she said.

It will also be a significant expense for the city, as each tree costs $600 to $800 to replace.

“It’s more complicated than just sticking a new tree in the ground,’’ she said. “Sometimes you have to do stump removals, get the right soil, and provide irrigation tubes.’’

Officials at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which maintains scores of parks and roadways from Milton to Medford, said their crews were clearing fallen tree limbs throughout the metropolitan area.

Wendy Fox, a spokeswoman, said the department had not received reports of injuries as a result of fallen trees, but crews had to clear trees from roads in the Middlesex Fells, along the Veterans of Foreign Wars Parkway in West Roxbury, and on Furnace Brook Parkway in Quincy.

“We’re worried about a lot more breaking limbs when the trees freeze,’’ she said. “Everyone has to be very careful and know that crews will be out there all night to keep things clear and safe.’’

In Holbrook, 19-year-old Nicholas Occhipinti got an early morning surprise when a large, snow-covered tree beside his two-decker snapped and fell on the roof over his bedroom.

“All of a sudden, I hear this loud boom and then I wake up to stuff falling all over me,’’ he said, standing in his second-floor bedroom, where two large holes from the tree allowed snow to pile up on his floor.

His mother, Lisa, said her son would move into his brother’s room for the next few weeks. “The only thing I can think of is how lucky we are,’’ she said. “The other stuff just really doesn’t matter. We’ll do the best with what we have and move on.’’

In Kenmore Square, Finbar Doyle, the superintendent of a building on Commonwealth Avenue, said he thought lightning struck when he heard the splintering of the large tree on the sidewalk in front of his building. Several fallen limbs landed on the building, but there was no damage, he said.

“You could hear it cracking right down the middle,’’ he said. “It was pretty loud.’’

Doyle said residents of the building were fortunate no one was hurt.

It was a sad sight for Doyle — another graceful city tree in a splintered heap.

“Hopefully the city will be able to replace it soon,’’ he said.

Brian Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this story. David Abel can be reached at