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Rare Fairhaven tree a legacy of firefighters

My column last week focused on smoothleaf elms and other trees planted in 1896 for Arbor Day in what was then the separate city of Fairhaven.

My side story focused on the rare and majestic Oriental plane tree behind the former Fairhaven Fire Station No. 2, but it turns out that tree’s history is much more recent.

I have since learned that two now-retired Bellingham firefighters, Roger Iverson and John Kunnap, planted the tree during the early 1980s. Both were assigned to the Fairhaven station at the time.

Iverson, who drove a fire engine, had a wholesale nursery in Bellingham as a side business. He specialized in flowering trees, and someone gave him two young trees, each in a five-gallon container. Iverson said he had been told they were Oriental plane trees, but he didn’t realize then that such trees were rare in North America.

Kunnap, who lives north of Bellingham, said the empty lot behind the fire station used to be a city dumping ground for gravel and ditch dredgings. That made for slow and rocky going when he and Iverson planted the tree.

“It was a dumpsite with just a little bit of soil over it,” Iverson said.

The rough ground didn’t stop the sapling from growing tall and wide, with sprawling, stout limbs that beckon young tree-climbers.

Kunnap took the second potted tree home with him, where it grew so large so quickly that he decided later to cut it down.

A decade ago, the 1927 fire station, which was replaced by a newer station nearby, reopened as the newly remodeled Firehouse Performing Arts Center.

At the time, some people wanted the fire station turned into a community center, and feared an arts center would generate too much traffic and noise. The arts center prevailed, but the city gave the building protective landmark status that also applies to the tree, said Jackie Lynch, a city planner.

“The tree is going to be preserved in perpetuity,” she said.

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