The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to declare a local state of emergency due to approaching winter weather and the thousands of dead trees still standing next to county roads more than a year after the Butte Fire.
The declaration comes after months of delays caused by a variety of factors including conflicts between federal standards and county systems for tracking expenses and state and federal rules requiring the study of the possible impacts of the tree removal on historic sites, American Indian archeological sites and endangered plant and animal species.
Public Works Director Jeff Crovitz said that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials recently notified him that due to updated estimates of the number of trees that need to be removed, federal officials would require a formal consultation under the National Environmental Protection Act.
Such a review takes 90 days, which means that county contractors would not be able to begin removing the approximately 8,800 trees until late January or early February.
By declaring a local emergency, however, county leaders will make it possible to instead conduct a faster, informal review of the environmental impacts, thus making it possible to begin the tree removal sooner.
The federal approvals are important because federal funding will pay most of the estimated $16 million to $17 million cost to remove the trees. But recent rain and the rotting roots of dead trees are forcing the question. Crovitz said he is already requiring his crews to remove imminently hazardous trees even though federal reimbursement is now uncertain.
He said that the declaration of the local emergency helps, and should make it possible to get reimbursement for emergency work to remove trees that are about to fall on public roads.
Crovitz, however, said he could not be absolutely certain the federal government would reimburse work done before the environmental determination. Several supervisors asked him to explain.
Crovitz said the question is whether federal authorities will be satisfied with the “ability of Public Works to properly track the work our employees do.”
Crovitz said he came away from meetings with federal officials frustrated because they are “very careful about giving guidance to local agencies.”
In particular, Crovitz said, “There is never a certain promise from them” that the county will get reimbursed for removing trees in imminent danger of falling.
Calaveras County Board of Supervisors Chairman Cliff Edson, who was with Crovitz for one recent meeting between FEMA representatives and county officials, supported Crovitz’ contention.
“FEMA, they have their own language,” Edson said. And FEMA’s rules make it a “challenge” for county departments to comply with funding rules, Edson said.
Calaveras County Administrative Officer Shirley Ryan said that Auditor-Controller Rebecca Callen recently issued “very detailed instructions on how to document the costs.”
A report issued in September by the federal Office of the Inspector General documented the failure by Calaveras County to promptly remove the fire-killed tree and to comply with federal accounting standards.
That report directed the California Office of Emergency Services to offer the county monitoring and support as needed to get the job done and properly comply with federal recordkeeping standards.
Callen said in an email that the state authorities have not sent anyone to directly assist the county but that personnel are available by phone and email to respond when Calaveras County government employees have questions.
Supervisors voted during a special meeting called specifically to consider the emergency declaration.