Residents of southern Lake County watched in horror last month as fast-moving flames from the Valley fire burned over a wide swath of the mixed conifer and oak forest that covered hillsides and shaded rural neighborhoods, leaving a patchwork of torched and singed trees intermixed with others that escaped evident damage.
Well before the fire was contained, firefighters, road and utility workers began felling and removing thousands of trees on public and private property. Officials said the trees were damaged and presented a danger to residents, motorists and infrastructure, including power and telephone lines.
But as that work proceeds, some area residents say they are witnessing a second wave of destruction — the loss of apparently healthy trees in their yards, along roads and in public places. They contend that many of those trees do not need to be cut down and that agencies overseeing the work have been overzealous with the logging.
“There are a huge number of trees that are being dropped unnecessarily,” said Steve Zalusky, a biologist who lives in Cobb, near the origin of the massive Valley fire, which started Sept. 12, destroyed 1,280 homes, killed four people and badly burned four firefighters.
The fire was declared fully contained last week, though firefighters continue to patrol the landscape in search of lingering flames and hot spots.
At the same time, crews associated with PG&E, Caltrans, AT&T, Cal Fire and the Lake County Public Works Department are moving through the sprawling fire zone, cutting down trees that they say pose a potential danger to the public, utility lines and roadways.
“We are erring on the side of safety,” said Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie. He said utility and road agencies are authorized and required to clear damaged trees both in the right of way and on private property if the trees are tall enough to fall onto roads or utility lines.
Frisbie said arborists and foresters hired by the utility companies are examining trees before they’re felled.
“Unless the trees have a good chance of surviving, for safety, we need to remove them,” Frisbie said.
Still, more than 1,000 people have signed an online petition asking county officials to halt any unnecessary tree cutting. They’ve branded some of the work “environmental genocide.”
“This fire has been devastating enough to our communities. Please prevent the further destruction and desecration of our homeland in the form of unnecessary deforestation,” the petition states.
“I am absolutely heartbroken and livid,” a person identifying herself as Middletown resident Ariel Cottrell posted on the petition website.
Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who represents much of the area burned in the fire, said he is investigating the concerns and allegations.
Joshua Wood lost his Cobb home to the Valley fire but he said his trees were largely unscathed. Yet two of them, located about 35 feet from the road and power lines, have been marked for removal.
The fire caused needles at the tops of the two trees to turn brown, but they’re otherwise fine, said Wood, who works for Calpine Corp., the energy company that operates plants in The Geysers geothermal field on the Sonoma-Lake county border.
“The bark is not even touched,” he said.
Wood said if an arborist tells him the trees need to come down and explains why, he’ll be happy to comply. But meanwhile, he’s covered the X marks on those trees with signs that warn tree cutters not to trespass, not to cut any trees and that “violators will be prosecuted.”
Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees
Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.
The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.
There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.