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Former student sets 300-year-old tree on fire at NC university

The iconic tree near the Old Well was damaged Thursday after it was set on fire by a former student. But the Davie Poplar will survive


By Joe Johnson and Ray Gronberg
The Herald-Sun

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Davie Poplar has stood tall in McCorkle Place on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in the face of hurricanes, lightning strikes and now fire.

The iconic tree near the Old Well was damaged Thursday after it was set on fire by a former student. But the Davie Poplar will survive.

The tree was examined Friday by university arborist Tom Bythell, who said the damage appeared to be superficial.

"I'm confident the tree will be fine," Bythell said.

A section of the tree's base was blackened by Thursday's fire, which also resulted in an explosion. The tree was cordoned off by police tape while the fire and subsequent explosion were being investigated.

UNC professor Dan Reichart was injured while trying to extinguish the fire. He suffered minor burns when an explosion occurred as he was attempting to kick dirt on the fire and put it out.

The tree was to be treated on Friday with an agent to protect it from attack by insects, Bythell said.

The tree was attacked Thursday, allegedly by Joshua Daniel Edwards, who authorities say set a guitar and bookbag on fire at the base of the venerable tree, according to UNC campus police. The incident resulted in several streets around McCorkle Place being closed, including Cameron Avenue, which runs beside the Old Well.

It is estimated that the Davie Poplar, which was named in honor of Revolutionary War general and university founder William Richardson Davie, is more than 300 years old. That makes it older than the university, which was founded in 1789.

Investigators have not released a motive for the alleged attack on the Davie Poplar.

Bythell's assessment aside, at least one other prominent UNC expert is concerned.

Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the N.C. Botanical Garden, said the proof will likely come next spring when it comes time for Davie's leaves to return.

Some tree species can shrug off fire, but tulip poplars like Davie tend to take root after fires and "are not adapted to" them, he said.

"It is an old tree, which means it's seen a lot of stress," Randall said. "Which might mean that it's going to do just fine, or might mean, because it is an old tree, that this could be devastating.

He added that while there are "some ancient" tulip poplars in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in western North Carolina, Davie may well be "the largest and oldest" one left in the Piedmont.

There is at least one other university town where iconic trees have been targeted.

Twice in the last decade, majestic oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Alabama were attacked. Toomer's Corner is a gathering spot for Auburn University football fans after big wins by the Tigers.

In 2010, an Alabama football fan poisoned a pair of the trees there. After trying to save the trees, Auburn University removed them in 2013. After being replaced in 2015, the new trees lasted a little more than a year.

Following Auburn's upset win over LSU last season, the trees were rolled with toilet paper, which is a tradition following notable Tiger victories. The toilet paper was ignited by a disgruntled LSU fan, which heavily damaged the canopy of one of the trees. The fire-damage tree was removed as was its mate, which had failed to take root and thrive.

Auburn since has replanted the oaks and prohibited rolling them until the trees have grown sufficiently.

Copyright 2017 The Herald-Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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