Cut Trees in Bonny Doon
PG&E cut down trees on the Andersons’ Bonny Doon property and finally stacked them in orderly piles after weeks of pleas from the Andersons to do so. Photo courtesy Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Kristi and Brian Anderson have some thoughts about how the first year of California’s “get-tough-on-utilities” approach to preventing wildfires is going: Badly. Very badly.

The Andersons, who live in Bonny Doon, nestled in the mountains near Santa Cruz, lost their home four months ago in the CZU Lightning Complex fires.

But their plight only got worse after the fires were out. They returned to their property to find that Pacific Gas and Electric crews had felled 20 trees on their two-acre lot, toppling 100-foot Douglas firs and leaving them where they fell.

In an attempt to clear vegetation from around power lines, the workers cut down old-growth redwoods and, in some cases, simply sawed off the tops of the beloved giants, creating a “horrid Dr. Seuss kind of tree,” Kristi Anderson said. “It makes us sick to our stomachs.”

Worse, after spending weeks clearing away the remains of their incinerated home, Brian Anderson arrived at his property to find a massive pile of trees atop a new trailer pad where he and his family were planning to live while their new home was being built.

Facing a potential bill for tens of thousands of dollars, the couple is wondering who is going to pay for the cleanup after PG&E left the piles of timber and woody debris that are obvious fire hazards.

Utility companies are carrying out numerous tasks to prevent wildfires, from ramping up line inspections to replacing antiquated equipment. But critics say that PG&E and other electricity providers should be focusing less on the cheap stuff, like cutting trees, and more on upgrading the thousands of miles of old lines and aging equipment.

“It’s been a long-standing problem with PG&E, instead of doing the responsible thing and investing in their infrastructure, they want to just do vegetation management,” said Assembly member Mark Stone, a Monterey Bay Democrat whose district includes Santa Cruz.

“This is just a shortcut. It’s part of their approach, taking the easiest path possible by cutting a bunch of trees and looking like they are doing something, while avoiding the bigger issue of infrastructure improvement.”

PG&E this year managed vegetation along 1,861 line-miles at a cost of almost $500 million, the company says. More than half of PG&E’s area is in high fire-threat zones, with 5,500 line-miles of electric transmission and 25,500 line-miles of distribution equipment.

PG&E also this year added 43 safety devices along transmission lines, upgraded 62 substations, and replaced poles or covered lines along 370 miles, according to the company. That leaves no documented plans for upgrading thousands of miles of lines, poles and other equipment in the coverage area, although some projects will be completed over the next 40 years.

The company’s combined fire mitigation costs this year are an estimated $2.5 billion.

Upgrading equipment, such as burying power lines, is significantly more costly for companies, so vegetation management is an appealing alternative. Burying lines costs more than $2 million a mile.

In previous years, the crews removed downed trees. But now contractors working for PG&E tell homeowners they have to leave larger trees on the ground because the timber is the resident’s property and may have commercial value.

“You just don’t see someone doing a project and leave all the logs on a site. That’s just not normal,” said Angela Bernheisel, a Cal Fire division chief in the Santa Cruz area.

The Andersons said they were still putting out small flare-ups from the wildfire’s hot spots during the time that the trees were left on their property.

A PG&E spokeswoman said that U.S. Forest Service research categorizes log stacks as posing a low fire risk.

But the practice, known as “whack and stack,” contributed to the 2007 Angora Fire around Lake Tahoe, according to research by Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the Oregon-based group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

“They are little fire bombs waiting to ignite. They can burn for hours,” said Ingalsbee, a former federal firefighter and wildland fire ecologist. r

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news site covering policy matters in the state.

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