Arson ruled out in fire that toppled 'The Senator' at Big Tree Park

3,500-year-old historic cypress tree catches fire

Published On: Jan 16 2012 06:35:10 AM EST   Updated On: Jan 16 2012 06:40:02 PM EST
LONGWOOD, Fla. -

Fire officials said arson is not to blame in a fire that toppled "The Senator," one of the oldest cypress trees in the world, which was reduced to a stump Monday morning at Big Tree Park in Seminole County.

VIEW PHOTOS: 'The Senator' catches fire | WATCH VIDEO: Top of tree ablaze | Ground view

A passerby spotted the fire around 6 a.m. atop top the massive 3,500-year-old tree at the park, which is located off General Hutchinson Parkway between U.S. 17-92 and State Road 427 near Longwood.

Investigators initially said arson was a possibility because a pile of twigs was found at the base of the tree and there had not been any recent lightning strikes in the area.  Also, no power lines are located nearby.

But a Department of Forestry official said Monday afternoon that the cause of fire was not connected to an arsonist.  The official cause of the fire is not yet known, and an investigation into the blaze is ongoing.

"It's unusual," Seminole County Fire Rescue spokesman Steven Wright said of the cause of the fire.

An arson investigator said the possible cause of the fire was a lightning strike from a couple of weeks ago and the dry conditions ignited the tree.

The tree, named after Florida Sen. M. O. Overstreet, who in 1927 donated the property on which the landmark sits, was about 120 feet tall and its trunk had a diameter of nearly 18 feet.  The tree was the main attraction in the park, which was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929.

"It's more than devastating," said Laura Winfrey, who had visited the tree several times with family members.

The tree had reached a height of 165 feet before a 1925 hurricane lopped off its top.  Afterward, lightning rods were installed to protect the tree from more damage.

More than a dozen firefighters were at the park Monday morning, laying about 1,000 feet of hose in an effort to reach the giant tree, which Wright said burned from the inside out.

"It's a logistical nightmare," said Wright, referring to the fact that the tree is not easily accessible for vehicles. 

Firefighters dumped water on the fire from a helicopter, but the tree collapsed a short time later.

Lady Liberty, a 2,000-year-old 90-foot cypress tree located nearby, was not damaged.

Seminole county commissioners said it's too early to tell what will be done to clean up the tree.