Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Top 50 feet of Douglas Fir falls on Jed Smith campsite

Campers were almost crushed Wednesday night when the top 50 feet of a soaring Douglas fir at least 3 feet in diameter fell in the popular riverside campground in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

"I feel like I hit the lottery in life because it didn't hit us," said Lori Chilcott of Crescent City, who was in the campsite just below the tree with her two young children when it fell.

Chilcott was being visited by a local friend, Cyndi Vaughan, who also had her two young children with her, when the huge tree fell on top of Vaughan's car, destroying it.

"The car is totaled, but the thing that I'm happy about is that no one got hurt. If just a couple of things were changed slightly it could have been devastating," Vaughan said.

The tree section fell just short of the spacewhere Chilcott had set up a tent for herself and two kids.

"If it would've been 5 feet longer and a couple hours later, it would've wiped out me and my two kids," Chilcott said.

The tree section was also less than 15 feet away from landing on an RV parked across from Chilcott's campsite.

Brett Silver, supervising ranger of Redwood National and State Parks, said park staff surveys the campground for trees that pose a hazard and removes them, but this Douglas fir appeared healthy from the outside. Inspection of the fallen tree, however, showed it had rotted to the core.

"Trees fall all the time in the park - that one just happened to go down in the campground in the middle of summer," Silver said.

Chilcott, Vaughan and their four kids were just returning from swimming in the Smith River, getting a fire started and drying off the kids when they heard a loud noise.

"We heard a boom. It sounded like maybe a firework or something deeper," Chilcott said.

"I thought, 'Is there really someone shooting off fireworks in a state park?'" Vaughan recalled.

After not seeing any signs of smoke or sparks, they continued preparing camp and at least 30 seconds passed before they heard another boom.

"I was looking up straight at the tree because that's where the noise came from, but we had never heard that sound before," Chilcott said.

Several more seconds passed before the two friends heard the tell-tale crackling noise of a tree falling.

"You could hear the cracking, which sent a shiver down our spines - everyone knows that noise," Chilcott said.

The camp host later told Chilcott that when he heard the noise he knew a tree was coming down and just prayed it wouldn't hit anyone.

After the crackling, Vaughan witnessed a middle section of the tree collapse under the weight of the top 50-foot section, creating a precariously positioned trunk perched on top of a 70-foot still-standing tree trunk.

"That's when I looked up and said, 'That tree is coming down!'" Chilcott said. "So we scooped up our babies and ran."

With one of their own children in one arm and one of their friend's in the other, both Chilcott and Vaughan ran for cover.

The fall was the spectacle of the night at Jed Smith campground, where everyone in the park heard the crash, even if they didn't hear the warning signs.

Shera Dewald and Kyda Shpersky of Napa Valley had only arrived at the campground 20 minutes earlier before hearing what "sounded like an entire redwood had fallen," Shepersky said. "We thought it was some incredible firework or a bomb almost - that's how big the sound was."

Even Dewald's toddler, Freya, was impressed with the noise.

"The tree fall down - it went boom. It went boom!" the young Freya said from her mother's arms and continued to say for several minutes as the adults described the fascination of a big tree falling, creating a near-death experience.

"That's nature," Silver said, adding that there did not appear to be any further risk from the 70-foot-tall lower section of the tree still standing. A parks forester will evaluate the tree next week to determine whether it will come down with a more controlled "boom."

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