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Frank Gray

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Darla Keller stands in front of a 200-year-old oak tree behind her home. Recent storms have left the tree badly damaged.

Tree’s fate has owner feeling ill

Darla Keller calls herself the ultimate tree-hugger.

The tree she hugs the most is a massive oak tree that sits on the edge of her lot on Elnora Drive, just off Washington Center Road.

People have told her the gigantic tree, 200 years old with a trunk four or five feet in diameter and massive limbs that twist and tangle up to 80 feet above the ground, is the biggest in Fort Wayne. Others have told her that if it’s not the biggest, it is certainly one of the biggest.

Keller first fell in love with the tree 13 years ago, when she was looking for a home. She didn’t even look at the house, she says. She bought the place because of the tree, and she has been its caretaker ever since.

When the company where her husband worked closed down a few years ago and he was thrown out of work, they fell behind on their house payments. They could have walked away from the house, Keller says, but she couldn’t leave the oak, so they declared bankruptcy and restructured all their debt.

The storm that swept through the city June 29, leaving trees down everywhere, apparently didn’t faze the huge oak. It seemed impervious to anything.

But the second storm that hit the city July 5, hammering the north side, was a different story. Keller said she was on her back porch and saw the tree lean as it had never leaned before and, despite its massiveness, twist.

Only one limb broke, and it did no damage, but later Keller made a horrifying discovery. A huge crack, nearly an inch wide, had appeared in the tree’s trunk.

Desperate to save the tree, Keller called arborists. The crack, it turned out, went practically all the way through the tree. You can pick up a stick and insert it four feet into the tree.

“I’ve had all kinds of people out here,” Keller said. Arborists have told her the tree is going to fall eventually, maybe in a week, maybe not for 10 years.

Keller said she called her insurance company and was told that because the tree didn’t fall it was her problem, and because the tree was cracked it is now a hazard. She needs to remove the hazard at her expense, and because it is an existing hazard her insurance won’t pay for any damage if it falls.

Removing a tree like that is no small thing, though. Keller says she’s called a number of tree services, but “They come out and they just back out of the yard. They say it’s too dangerous, or they don’t have the equipment. I can’t even get an estimate” from most tree services.

One company did give Keller a bid of $7,500, which she says she doesn’t have, and even tree companies that are willing to tackle the tree say they won’t be able to get to it for two months.

“I can’t even sleep comfortably,” Keller says. “My husband sleeps in the basement. I feel like I’ve got a bomb in my yard.”

Keller says that people who see her ask her whether she’s sick. She’s not, she says. The loss of the tree is like the loss of a loved one to her. “My spirit has just left me,” she says.

Meanwhile, Keller isn’t finding much sympathy. She says a neighbor has told her that if the tree falls on her house and kills her, she’s instructed her grandchildren to sue Keller.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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