“There will not be any more trees taken down on your property at this time.”
These were the words that a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. representative told Lodi resident and Camp Connell cabin owner Rosalyn Montgomery-Meisch a few weeks ago.
In recent weeks, a PG&E logging contractor felled a bark beetle-killed fir tree standing less than 10 feet from Montgomery-Meisch’s cabin in Camp Connell off the north side of Highway 4, but she was never notified of the day it would be cut.
“There are specific instructions right here to notify me,” Montgomery-Meisch says, pointing at a PG&E document listing her phone number and address. “Nobody notified me. Taking down the (beetle-killed tree) is understandable and I appreciate them doing that, but I wanted to be here when they took this tree down. This is their paperwork. I filled it out and kept copies. This is why people don’t trust PG&E.”
With several marked trees still left on her property, Montgomery-Meisch called PG&E to protest any future removals, and was marked as a “hard refusal,” meaning that the company would cease any operations to remove trees until a later date.
“This cabin was the first one built on this lane in 1937,” Montgomery-Meisch says, her hand turning a nearly century-old doorknob. “It was a hunter’s cabin that my father built, but he passed away before he could continue on to expand it.”
Montgomery-Meisch, and others who have taken the same steps to protect their trees, are worried that the hard refusal won’t be enough.
“We won the battle for the lane, but the war for our trees has just begun,” says Jared Taylor, who owns a neighboring cabin on the historic lane.
Taylor and his wife bought the cabin last year, but have visited the area for over five years together.
“This is why we come up here,” Taylor says, standing next to an enormous old-growth ponderosa pine marked for removal well past the 12-foot recommendation. “It’s a century-old cabin track. We’ve got old-growth-trees. It’s our serenity, our peace, our getaway. We meditate, we have lane get-togethers, we go on walks. When you’re up there, you feel it. Imagine all of this gone.”
Taylor is also concerned with runoff and drainage issues during rainy season that may come as a result of losing trees directly in front of the cabin.
“These trees help shelter our cabin’s foundation from rain,” Taylor says. “If we didn’t have these trees, we would have serious runoff issues. It could inundate our cabin.”
Another concern is that smaller trees would be exposed to heavy winds and could potentially blow over and destroy cabins, Taylor adds. Years ago, a gigantic beetle-killed tree was removed in the neighborhood, and a live tree eventually fell in a severe windstorm later that year since it was no longer protected from wind gusts by the dense body and thick branches of the larger tree.
“The winds caught it and knocked it right down,” Taylor recalls.
PG&E also plans to remove several hundred trees acting as a noise barrier along the median road between the cabin lane and the highway, Taylor adds.
Taylor says there’s a lack of communication between PG&E’s contractors and homeowners, since the scope of the work is so enormous and difficult to manage.
“Just walking around (multiple cabin lanes in the area), there must be a couple thousand-plus trees marked, green (healthy trees),” Taylor says. “It’s becoming a massive logging operation.”
PG&E contractors have marked trees on Taylor’s property three times now, even after the couple spoke with an agency supervisor who told them they would be added to a growing list of hard refusals.
There’s been a lack of accountability on the part of PG&E to reach out to homeowners, especially since many of the cabins on the lane are vacation homes, according to Morro Bay resident Bob Duncan, another neighboring cabin owner.
“They’re not notifying anybody,” Duncan says. “They’re coming in marking the trees, hanging a coat hanger on the door. These cabins, some people don’t come up here more than once a year.”
PG&E presentation to the Board of Supervisors
In a presentation to the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Aaron Johnson, vice president of the Customer Energy Solutions (CES) organization at PG&E, addressed a range of county-wide concerns about the company’s wildfire community safety program, from the accelerated marking and removal of trees to shutting off power to thousands of county residents with little warning.
Johnson admitted that the company has been far from perfect in its approach to mitigate fire risks around power lines, but will continue to work with homeowners to address their individual needs.
“When trees are marked, there’s an opportunity to speak to the landholder and have discussions around that,” Johnson told the board. “Sometimes when folks aren’t home they (contractors) still go and mark trees. We know we need to get out and speak with folks to work through any potential issues. It’s a real challenge. People love their trees. That said, we’re facing more and more extreme weather, and we’re trying to find that balance of working with the community and addressing public safety. This is new for us, and we know we’re not getting it all right, but there’s an incredibly strong commitment to recognizing fire risk as being a big part of our business.”
The main goal is to clear vegetation hanging over lines with the greatest potential to break and fall during severe weather events, Johnson reiterated.
Over time, PG&E hopes to clear the corridors around its lines by 15 feet on either side for a fire defense zone that could provide access to first responders during extreme weather events as well as PG&E crews conducting line maintenance, Johnson said.
Johnson also described the events leading up to PG&E’s emergency power shut-off on Oct. 14, which left roughly 3,000 customers in the county – 125 of which were medical baseline customers (those with special energy needs due to certain qualifying medical conditions) – in the dark for 36 hours.
The shut-off was enacted pre-emptively due to a variety of weather conditions, including forecasts of extremely low humidity levels (below 20 percent), warm temperatures, dry fuels and strong wind gusts.
“These kinds of weather events tend to come overnight,” Johnson warned. “All bets are off with the kind of extreme weather we’re seeing.”
Johnson said the decision to pull the plug ultimately came after receiving reports of debris igniting in Amador County.
After monitoring power lines, the company indicated 23 instances of wind-related issues across impacted areas that required repair prior to restoration, 18 instances of damage to PG&E equipment, (15 from falling vegetation) and five cases of documented hazards (all vegetation related), such as branches found lying across conductors, which were cleared prior to restoration, according to Johnson.
Johnson said that the company’s goal is “to notify customers 72 hours before a shut-off and to have power back on in 24 hours if there is a next time, which unfortunately there probably will be.”
As far as long-term solutions to harden the company’s infrastructure, Johnson said that reinstalling power lines underground would be three to 10 times more expensive, though PG&E will be conducting “significantly more retrofitting for underground than we have done in the past.”
After hearing Johnson’s presentation, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi suggested that PG&E consider allowing broadband providers to use the utility’s poles at a discounted rate to expand broadband to rural areas as it begins to rebuild its system.
During public comment, multiple Butte Fire victims spoke about the utility giant’s lack of accountability to assist transitioning survivors after starting the massive wildfire in 2015.
“They felled a pine tree on my property,” Butte Fire victim Chris Jonkults said. “The tree is 4 feet in diameter, I have no way to remove it and they never removed it. They made an absolute mess of my property, and my tractor was destroyed in the fire they caused, so I can’t clean it up. One of the walking paths is a foot deep in silt and twigs. I told them I want no logs left on my property. Any time I have contacted them since the fire they have never given me a response.”
Mountain Ranch resident and Butte Fire victim Terry McBride said that PG&E hasn’t fully followed through on commitments to remove dead and dying trees still standing in the Butte Fire scar.
“They’re putting off their responsibility,” McBride said of PG&E. “We should not have to have people get their electricity turned off, especially folks with breathing machines. They’re supposed to clear the lines. “
In closing, Johnson responded, “Hearing customer feedback is very real, and it does remind me that we have some work to do earn back people’s trust.”