The Kenwood Press
News: 02/15/2018

Questions surround fire damaged tree and vegetation removal

Jay Gamel

Tom Petarian has signed up for PG&E’s tree removal program for his Lawndale Road property. He noted that he’s never seen PG&E move so vigorously to remove trees in his 36 years of living there. Photo by Jay Gamel

As PG&E is looking to wind down its aggressive post-fire tree culling program, Sonoma County is ramping up a federally-funded project that aims to take down fire-damaged trees along 90 miles of roads if they pose a danger of falling into county roadways. While the initial survey for the program is finished, the number of trees targeted is not yet available.

Adobe Canyon Road homeowner Patti Everett became aware of the county project when a survey crew showed up at her home – the last house before the Sugarloaf State Park entrance – and put aluminum tags on many of her second- and third-growth redwoods surrounding an auxiliary structure that burned in the October fire. Her home is intact.

“It’s very, very sad,” Everett said, noting that redwood trees are fire resilient and that many of those tagged by the county’s consulting firm, ACRT, don’t seem to be damaged or even in the county’s right of way.

“I want to make sure that none of them are taken down by accident,” Everett said. She is currently trying to find out exactly where the right-of-way boundaries are.

While the county would normally be restricted to removing tree hazards from within their right of way – usually 20 feet on either side of the centerline of the road, there is some question as to whether they will reach into private property to take trees.

Sonoma County Public Works spokesman David Cameron said it would be impossible to determine exactly the precise rights-of-way for all 90+ miles of roadway being surveyed.

“Right-of-way can take several forms and depends largely on how a road became part of the County system and if it was later altered or improved,” he said. “It is not usually drawn from parcel to parcel; however, it can vary between different properties on the same road. This is why it was not realistic to survey all 90 miles of fire affected road.

“This means that some of the trees identified will be on private property.”

Cameron is the assistant project manager at Public Works and is overseeing the current stage of the program titled Arborist Services for Tree Assessment in Fire Damaged Areas.

“The County is carefully considering how best to ensure that trees on private property, which threaten the safety of people who use County roads, will be removed. Property owners will be notified prior to any tree work, or informed if they could be responsible for removing the trees.”

The program isn’t exactly funded yet, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has indicated it will be eligible for funding, according to Cameron. “FEMA has confirmed that the assessment and mitigation projects are eligible for funding”, he said. “This would be provided after the work has been performed.”

a silver tag on a tree
ACRT, a company out of Akron, Ohio, was hired by the county to conduct a tree survey in the fire-damaged areas. This tree is one of thousands surveyed and tagged in the area. Photo by Jay Gamel.

Last December, the county hired Akron-based ACRT, a utility vegetation management company that works for utility companies nationwide. The employee-owned company was to assess trees over six inches in diameter and over four feet tall for hazards to county roads along 90 miles of fire damaged roadway by the end of January and report back to the Public Works department in February.

What happens next is not clear.

“It will take a while for us to go through the report and determine the best approach, prioritizing public safety and effectively getting the work done,” Cameron said.

Asked if there is any appeal process, Cameron wrote: “We have received several questions regarding tagged trees showing green growth. My understanding is that it is possible for a tree to have suffered catastrophic structural damage but still produce new growth. Action on such trees will be taken on an individual basis and only with the recommendation of the licensed arborist, hired by TPW [Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works Department] to perform this assessment.”

Tom Petarian lost his home on Lawndale Road and doesn’t plan on rebuilding. While he has not had problems with the tree removal and cleanup on his property so far, he hasn’t had much of a voice in the process, either.

“It was three weeks before I could see the property and by that time most of them had been cut,” he said.

Having lived there for 36 years, Petarian feels that PG&E has taken a very aggressive approach to tree removal this time. “They are cutting everything near a power line.”

He has already called PG&E to sign up for their special tree removal program.

PG&E wildfire wood management program

Having taken over 30,000 trees down during and after October’s firestorm, PG&E is looking to finish this special phase of its ongoing vegetation management program that keeps California’s lively flora away from its power lines. Lawsuits have already been filed claiming the company’s lax oversight is to blame for at least some of the fires that destroyed over 5,000 homes in Sonoma County alone.

California law requires PG&E to remove trees that threaten its lines. As it did in Lake County’s Valley Fire two years ago, the company is offering a special program to help homeowners remove qualifying damaged trees (over four inches in diameter) as well as the cut up trees left after the fire – something they don’t ordinarily do. Trees are cut and stacked and homeowners typically dispose of them.

“They are the owner’s property,” PG&E spokesperson Dianne Contreras said. “Usually we chip and spread and leave it there for them. Because of (so many) burned trees and (so much) pruning, we are offering the free program.”

Green ribbons are tied around trees tagged by PG&E for cutting. According to Contreras, over 99 percent of the tagging has been done, although pockets of unexamined trees pop up now and then. Red ribbons are county-marked trees.

Customers who would like to opt in to the Wildfire Wood Management Program can call 800-743-5000, but they have to do it soon. The program closes on Feb. 28.

In order to qualify, the wood to be removed must be easily accessible by equipment or machinery, larger than four inches in diameter and six feet in length. The wood must be within 50 feet of a permanent structure or have the ability to impede traffic or roll into roads, road drainages, or watercourses. PG&E will clean up debris it cuts either by chipping or lopping and spreading according to forestry industry best practices.

Contreras said that PG&E contractors will haul away and dispose of the wood. The wood being removed from fire-impacted areas is generally not commercially viable. PG&E’s contractors will determine any potential end-uses.

“We’re offering this wood removal service to reduce wildfire risk created by hazard trees piling up, and to help ensure that customers can safely enjoy their property,” said Dave Canny, senior manager of PG&E’s North Bay and Sonoma Divisions.