The case of the surviving Madrone tree

The Madrone tree still standing after the fire. Photo courtesy of Jim Watson.

The fire started around five p.m. on June 29, 2015. Starting in the old press box of Civic Stadium, it spread throughout the old wooden grandstands and quickly engulfed the entire structure. Eugene-Springfield firefighters rushed on site and set up in the nearby parking lot to combat the blaze. Hundreds of onlookers gathered along the sidewalk and pedestrian overpass on Amazon Parkway, watching as one of the country’s oldest sports stadiums met its fiery end.

There was no hope for the complex, and by the time the fire and clean-up crews finished, all that was left of Civic Stadium were a few skeletal wooden beams. Many in Eugene know this sad tale, but few know about the one small, plucky organism survived that summer fire despite being right in the center of the action: a Madrone tree.

“It was dropped here as a seed by a bird that passed overhead,” said Whitey Lueck, instructor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon.

It was dropped some 20 years ago into a crowded cement planter on the east end of where the grandstands stood. It isn’t really a planter at all – it’s the foundation of one of the now-charred wooden light poles. This means the tree’s roots share a crowded space with the light pole, and have only a couple feet of rocky topsoil with which to grow before hitting solid cement.

“Even before the fire we started seeing this tree as a symbol of hope,” Jim Watson of Friends of Civic Stadium said.

But the fire happened, and it was huge.  

Watson, who watched as the fire spread and overtook the stadium last June, said that the heat was almost unbearable to him standing hundreds of feet away on the far side of the parking lot.

The fire scorched the tops of the massive maple and fir trees on Willamette Street, but the Madrone tree was short enough to avoid the worst of the rising heat. The winds blew northwest which was lucky for the little Madrone, which rested on the opposite side, against the telephone pole.

Today, you can see where a whole branch of it was burned off, leaving only a blackened stump in place of the limb. Some of its leaves are brown and wilted, proof of the incredible heat it withstood.

Friends of Civic Stadium hope to transplant the tree and move it somewhere on the grounds where it can grow more. But the Madrone may not survive the journey.

“These trees are extremely difficult to transplant,” Lueck advised, “It would be an exercise in futility.”

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