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Helicopter patrols spot dead or dying trees near power lines

PG&E spending large on arborists, pilots, and equipment
Helicopter patrols spot dead or dying trees near power lines
An arborist directs the pilot while searching for problem trees near power lines.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Paul Goguen

I don’t often get offered free helicopter rides but when I do, I take them. This is how I found myself doing a ride-along with two arborists, a pilot, and another reporter on a PG& E inspection of trees near the city of Sonoma in a Bell 407. Taking off from Sonoma Jet Center, we headed straight toward Sonoma, passing over Oakmont and Glen Ellen along the way, until we reached an area near Buena Vista Winery where the inspections began.

For the arborists to observe the condition of trees near power lines, we needed to fly low. Buzz-the-tower low. Low enough that I could clearly see the hand gestures of people who weren’t especially happy with a low-flying chopper over their property.

Pretty much all the houses we saw in this particular inspection zone didn’t look “affordable,” giving the whole experience the feel of a TMZ tour, or perhaps a segment from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It left me wondering why you wouldn’t want power lines on and around your property inspected, at no cost to you, in an effort to keep your … stuff from burning up, as it did in this area in 2017.

I digress. Once a problematic tree is observed, its coordinates are entered into a rugged-looking tablet. That information eventually ends up in the hands of a PG& E ground crew that deals with removal or trimming appropriately. PG& E spokesperson Deanna Contreras explains the mission: “We take steps every day to keep the trees away from the power lines, and that involves a lot of inspections along 81,000 miles of our overhead distribution lines across our entire service territory — but we are taking additional steps as part of our routine annual compliance work specifically for the dead and dying trees that we’ve been seeing since 2014.”

Devon Sharp is the pre-inspection manager of the Sonoma Tree Mortality Program with PG& E. He says dead or dying trees are trending in the wrong direction.

“We’re seeing an increase in the past years associated with the drought conditions in Sonoma Valley. I’d estimate that we’re probably seeing, identifying, and removing 400 to 500 dead or dying trees per year, just as a part of this focused patrol that is specifically looking for them. That is not including the trees that have been identified on our normal routine patrol that also happens annually.”

PG& E’s relationship with many folks in our community could be described as tenuous. Some might use a stronger verb. That being said, I was impressed with all the effort, technology, and money being poured into this endeavor to identify and deal with trees that might mess with power lines. So next time you see or feel a low-flying helicopter, whether you are gardening naked or growing tons of weed, don’t worry. They are just looking at the trees.

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