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Out on a Limb

Is the post-wildfire vegetation-removal "gold rush" creating more problems than it's resolving?

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Timber Trouble PG&E's tree pruning policies have come under fire from Angwin resident Kellie Anderson, pictured, and state regulators.
  • Timber Trouble PG&E's tree pruning policies have come under fire from Angwin resident Kellie Anderson, pictured, and state regulators.

Keep on Truckin'? PG&E tree trimming contracts have attracted a "gold rush" of out of state workers.

Angwin's Kellie Anderson had been battling the ever-expanding vines of Napa County for years when the 2017 wildfires struck. Now the former county agricultural biologist has a new, but familiar foe in her nearby beloved forests of ponderosa pine and ephemeral streams: PG&E.

Anderson's been raising an alarm over what she says is the utility's over-zealous post-fire program of vegetation removal around power lines. "My concern is that the tree-clearing seems incredibly aggressive," she says. Trees that have been pruned, she says, are left standing "in such a damaged state that they're likely to fall over and die."

The investor-owned utility, through its go-to contractor, Davey Tree, has hired dozens of out-of-state tree companies to come to the North Bay and trim vegetation around its power lines. The utility's lack of vegetation removal was held to be the culprit in most of the mega-wildfire activity that's occurred in California over the past couple of years.

Anderson says they're overdoing it, at least in Angwin, and that PG&E is creating all sorts of unresolved issues in the aftermath of its pruning: What happens to trees that she says have been pruned to death? As its contractors clear canopies and exposes shaded forest floor to the sun is PG&E creating a greater risk for future wildfires?

"I've spent my life up here working on and looking at the forest," says Anderson. "We are seeing trees that are left next to the power lines clearly die very quickly." In clearing around the power lines, the tree removal firms, she says, have left the remaining trees exposed and vulnerable, as she describes "swaths of clearing around the power lines that leaves trees around the sides."

Those trees, she says, are doomed. The contractors, she says, have created a 50-foot wide clearing down to dirt, using excavators to remove downed trees.

Anderson's especially concerned about recent vegetation removal in and around Conn Creek, an ephemeral waterway that runs through Angwin that's dry during much of the year. Despite what she says are ample warnings to the workers—blue flagging on trees indicate a watercourse—the contractors rolled through here with their diesel-powered tractors.

It's a seasonal creek, but that shouldn't give subcontractors the green light to run their equipment over the dry bed. She charges that the utility's subcontractors "savagely logged a power line" that goes to a few houses. In doing so, they created potential future erosion-control problems, she says.

Anderson also raised her concerns about Conn Creek with the state's Fish and Wildlife division but didn't get any satisfaction. "They thought the damage to the creek channel was not extensive enough to go after it," she says. Had they written it up as a violation, the county district attorney would have been in a position to enforce it and, she says, save the creek from further damage. There's a denuded hillside nearby that she's worried about. "With coming rains, it will erode into the creek channel with debris, mud, silt and is highly altered."

With all this post-wildfire activity swirling around her, Anderson has contacted PG&E with a few asks: Please remove downed trees without driving heavy equipment through the creek. Stay off the steep slopes. Minimize soil disturbances to protect the watershed and remaining tree canopy.

Karen Weiss is a senior environmental supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and is responsible for assessing habitat conservation in the North Bay counties. She says a warden from the agency's enforcement division visited the Conn Creek following Anderson's complaint and that PG&E's subcontractors did not have the proper permit to work in the creek-bed, nor had they notified Fish and Wildlife, as required. Moving forward, says Weiss, PG&E would need to provide a notification that they'd be working in a creek bed.

"When they do any work within the creek or through the creek, on at a minimum they have to contact us. PG&E is on notice about it. We have an ongoing relationship with them about ongoing vegetation removal."

Anderson sketches a post-wildfire scene in Angwin and parts of Napa where what's being called a "gold rush" is apparently underway. There are trucks everywhere and a seemingly endless number of trees in need of pruning.

She's counted some two-dozen out-of-state license plates, from Arkansas to Kansas, and ticks off the array of heavy equipment that's arrived on scene—grapple trucks, bucket trucks, skip-loaders, bobcats and burly excavators. All this equipment, which arrived on the heels of state and federal emergency declarations, has her further concerned about the potential for out-of-state invaders such as gypsy moths coming in with the trucks and staying. The emergency declaration, she says, has created a bizarre and unresolved regulatory disconnect when it comes to inspections of agriculture-related vehicles or their passengers.

"When people want to launch a boat in a body of water here, you have to get an Asian zebra mussel sticker," she notes. "Why do we let logging trucks from other states come here without any verification that they've been inspected for pests?"

Following the 2017 wildfires, Anderson describes the scene in Napa as somewhere between the Grapes of Wrath and the California Gold Rush. She says she's seen firsthand how, in an effort to get its vegetation-clearance up to par, PG&E has poorly managed the subcontractors that are brought and deployed by the company's go-to tree removal firm, Davey Tree. "We know that the standards that are employed by these subcontractors from across the country varies wildly," she observes. When it comes to the power-line clearing, she claims that there's "no standard width, no standard practice for cleanliness of these sites once they're done."

It's up to the residents, she says, to curtail any over-zealous pruning. "If somebody says, 'I don't want that,' they'll get the minimum," she says. "They are responsive if you are there." But if you're a vineyard owner, she notes, "they're just coming through, and people are not looking out for the big D9 bulldozers that are pushing brush into piles."

The upshot for Anderson is PG&E is doing more harm than good in Angwin. "This is reducing PG&E's liability but to turn around and say, 'this is making your community safer, firewise,' we just don't believe it."

PG&E defends its practices. "PG&E is taking steps every day to improve the safety and reliability of our electric system, which serves nearly 16 million people in Northern and Central California," says North Bay PG&E spokesperson Deanne Contreras. "This includes working together with our customers and communities to manage vegetation that is located near power lines and could pose a safety concern."

PG&E's service area includes more than 100 million trees with the potential to grow or fall into overhead power lines, she says. Every year, PG&E inspects almost 100,000 miles of overhead electric power lines, she says.

The utility has expanded its practices since the fires, she says. "This includes addressing vegetation that poses a higher potential for wildfire risk in high fire-threat areas (like Conn Creek). This work is one of many additional precautionary measures implemented following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires as part of our comprehensive Community Wildfire Safety Program."

The enhanced management program, she says, includes "removing hazardous vegetation such as dead or dying trees that pose a potential risk to the lines, trimming vegetation around lower voltage secondary lines to prevent damage, when needed, and evaluating the condition of trees that may need to be addressed if they are tall enough to strike the lines."

In response to Anderson's charge that they're trimming far too much from healthy trees, Contreras notes that while the utility has always removed dead branches overhanging the lines as required by law, now they're removing branches "before they die or break off and fall into the lines." All their tree-trimmers under contract, she says, are required to follow California OSHA regulations and other safety measure "to perform line clearance work safely near high-voltage lines." She says there's about 3,500 contractors and subcontractors currently at work doing vegetation removal around the state. "If there is a concern, we'll address it. This important safety work is to help keep customers and their neighborhoods safe."

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