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Mark West Springs Road shut for hours after trees crush van; dog, 2 puppies die; road to be closed again for tree work

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Storm-swollen Mark West Creek brought a cluster of redwoods crashing down on a van northeast of Santa Rosa on Thursday, killing a Clearlake man and three dogs, authorities said.

The freak accident, the third of its kind in Sonoma County since 1995, killed Douglas Stuart Black, 48. He appeared to have died instantly from head injuries, the coroner said.

Black was driving west on Mark West Springs Road when the redwoods fell, the CHP said. There were no witnesses and investigators don't know exactly when the accident happened, but other motorists came upon the downed trees and the crushed van at about 6 a.m.

Two trees had been uprooted on the far side of the swirling creek and toppled two others, bringing all four crashing across the road and stretching 75 feet up a hill on the other side, taking power and phone lines down with them.

The largest of the second-growth trees, estimated to be 4 feet in diameter and as tall as a 17-story building, slammed directly across the front seat of Black's 1998 GMC Safari van.

The CHP found no evidence Black had time to swerve or brake before the impact.

"I can't imagine he even knew what hit him," Officer David Derczo said.

Black was pinned against the driver's seat by crushed metal. Rincon Valley firefighters, who pronounced Black dead at the scene, removed his body using the Jaws of Life.

A Dalmatian dog and two puppies also died. One of the dogs was in Black's lap at the time of the accident, the CHP said.

Black may have worked as a salesman. A male voice on an answering machine at a Clearlake home believed to be his asked callers to leave messages for River Shade Co. Samples of window blinds were seen inside the crushed van.

The collision occurred about a quarter-mile west of the Mark West Springs Lodge, forcing the CHP to close the road and divert traffic as crews worked to remove the wreckage and repair fallen power lines.

The road was reopened late Thursday but is to be closed again at 9 a.m. today as county work crews remove more trees. There was no estimate on when the road would open again.

As was the case Thursday, westbound traffic will be diverted at Porter Creek Road and eastbound traffic at both Ursuline and Riebli roads.

PG&E hoped to restore power to 17 customers Thursday evening.

Black's death was the third in nine years involving falling trees and motorists in Sonoma County.

In 1995, a Healdsburg man was killed on Mark West Springs Road when a storm-weakened fir tree fell on his laundry van.

In 2002, a Sonoma Valley woman was killed on Arnold Drive when a eucalyptus tree toppled in high winds and crashed onto her convertible car.

Experts say it's less common for redwoods to topple because of their deeper roots and massive trunks. Black's death occurred on a clear morning free of any significant wind, almost a full day after heavy rains had stopped.

"It's one in a million," said David Robertson, deputy director of transportation and public works for Sonoma County. "It's not something you can predict, and it's not something you can prevent."

This week's storms brought reports of fallen trees across Sonoma County, including an oak tree that toppled onto Mark West Springs Road near where Thursday's fatality occurred.

Robertson said road crews monitor the road regularly and remove potentially dangerous trees. But he said it was impossible to know that the redwoods involved in Thursday's fatality were at risk of falling because they were on private property about 100 feet away from the road.

Pointing to a large fir tree leaning precipitously in the same area, Robertson said, "All roads in forests have an element of risk, especially during high winds and heavy rainfall."

It was apparent that water had worn away about an 80-foot swath of the creek's far bank, exposing roots.

The two trees that collapsed fell into another pair of redwoods, taking one down and shearing the other of its branches on one side. Another tree also fell.

State Department of Fish and Game officials gave tree cutters the go-ahead to remove the remaining 140-foot-tall redwood after determining that it posed a danger to the public.

The job was left to Mike Hodgin and his crew of four men, one of whom shimmied up the tree so it could be cut in segments.

Using a 30-ton crane, crews labored to remove the massive trunks that fell across the creek, restricting the flow of water.

"It's very dangerous," said Hodgin, an arborist with Hodgin and Sons Tree Service.

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