PG&E to expand wildfire protection program, mark trees for removal

Trees are marked for removal in neighborhoods off the Highway 4 corridor near Arnold.

In preparation for fire season, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has expanded its vegetation management plans and is prepared to shut off power to more customers during extreme weather events under its wildfire safety program.

“In response to the ever growing wildfire threat, we have expanded and enhanced our vegetation and safety work,” PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo told the Enterprise last week.

In order to meet and exceed state vegetation and fire safety standards, crews will be trimming overhanging branches and limbs directly above and around power lines and assessing trees under threat of ignition from power lines during extreme weather events, Merlo said.

Merlo provided a list of over 10 tree species that PG&E-contracted certified arborists are assessing for maintenance, some of which includes black oak, Douglas fir, Valley oak, live oak and Ponderosa pine.

“For these species, we are looking at how tall the tree is, how close it is to the power line and the likelihood of striking the power line if it were to fall,” Merlo said.

In 2018, the utility removed 160,000 trees and performed fuel reduction, overhang clearing or enhanced vegetation management along 760 miles of power lines, according to a report presented to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in February.

Submitted a week after filing for bankruptcy protection in the wake of billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities, the report was mandated by Senate Bill 901, which passed last year.

Nearly half of the utility’s ignitions last year were caused by vegetation and power lines coming into contact, according to the report. PG&E forecasts another 375,000 trees to be removed and another 2,450 circuit miles of vegetation management in high fire-risk areas by the end of 2019.

Leftover wood from tree removals will be hauled away to “further reduce potential fire risks associated with fuel loading,” Merlo said.

“We have set up sites across our service area to store the wood in the short-term, and we are currently working with Cal Fire to discuss viable options as it relates to how the wood debris will be handled going forward,” Merlo said. “In some cases, we may acquire electricity on behalf of our customers in return for delivering fuel at no cost to biomass facilities.”

In other areas, logs may be delivered to processing facilities or biomass plants, Merlo added.

Merlo said the utility does not make a profit on the wood, as hauling costs generally exceed its commercial value.

“Any revenues from disposing of these materials would benefit customers through partially offsetting the cost of the debris cleanup effort, which is not a standard PG&E process and not done as part of our routine vegetation management work,” Merlo added.

The report also indicates that the utility will shut off power to a wider array of customers in and out of high fire-threat areas.

Public safety power shut offs will now include high voltage transmission lines and will extend to Tier 2 (elevated fire risk) areas in addition to Tier 3 (extreme fire risk) areas, based on the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection fire-threat map that was adopted by the CPUC in 2017.

“Any of PG&E’s more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off for safety only as a last resort when forecasted fire danger conditions warrant,” a Feb. 6 news release reads.

Additionally, the utility plans to “upgrade and strengthen” approximately 7,100 miles of power lines over the next 10 years, with reference to undergrounding and installation of more resilient poles.

A list of current projects in Calaveras County was not readily available by press time.

Merlo said the pace and scale of local projects will pick up once weather conditions permit.

District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway told the Enterprise in a phone interview Wednesday that she hopes PG&E will be able to reach a compromise with homeowners with concerns about having trees removed in their neighborhoods.

“I believe what they are doing is just one of the tools in their toolbox (for wildfire protection),” Callaway said of PG&E. “The other side of that are residents who are going to be impacted by that.”

Since both the utility and property owners want fire safety, Callaway said she hopes there is a way to marry PG&E’s objectives with the needs of property owners.

Arnold cabin owner Michael Dawson told the Enterprise Tuesday that many of his trees off Old Moran Road have recently been retagged for trimming.

Dawson said he’s worried that “unnecessary and aggressive trimming” will kill the trees, and eliminate the visual barrier he has to Moran Road.

Last year, Dawson had trees marked well past the 12-foot recommendation from the power line on two separate occasions. The first set was removed by a contractor upon request.

“When I called the PG&E number left on my door after (the) second marking, they said they would honor my request not to cut my trees now, but would not unmark the trees,” Dawson said. “I hope most of my neighbors realize they don’t need to allow PG&E to cut further (than the four-foot CPUC mandate) if they want to save their trees.”

Dawson said that hardening its infrastructure – the only aspect that addresses all types of ignitions, based on the report – appears to be one of the utility giant’s “last priorities” in the new plan.

“It appears PG&E is only working on tree removal, and not other improvements to their electrical lines in Arnold,” Dawson said. “The Camp Fire did not start with falling trees, it started from deferred maintenance on a 100-year-old tower that PG&E knew needed repair. PG&E is still not properly investing in our infrastructure for sensing and automatically shutting off power lines should they be struck by animals or tree limbs … (or) in wire insulation that would help protect live electric wires.”

While in favor of the utility’s fire protection efforts, Gordon Long, the Executive Director of the Calaveras County Resource Conservation District (CCRCD) said the plan lacks community engagement.

"It's important to see PG&E expand their efforts to stop and contain future wildfires along their utility corridors. What they are proposing are positive steps,” Long said in an email Thursday. “Lacking in this new Fire Plan is an increased grant program for local communities to work on fire prone zones in their own communities. If PG&E wants to become better community partners, they might want to consider engaging them in more constructive ways."

Last May, Calaveras Planning Coalition Facilitator Tom Infusino submitted various recommendations to PG&E to incorporate community benefits into the utility’s vegetation removal work.

Some of those included contracting locally for tree removal, giving gift certificates for approved plants at local nurseries for homeowners who have had vegetation removed, working with local high schools to recruit community service volunteers to replant yards for senior citizens and compensating homeowners who have lost shade for purchase of awnings, window film or air conditioners.

Merlo did not respond as to whether these recommendations have been considered.

This story was updated Mar. 7, 2019 to include a comment from Gordon Long, the Executive Director of the Calaveras County Resource Conservation District (CCRCD).

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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