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Bob Alpern, right, and stepdaughter Oona Montgomery watch a logging truck rumble past as redwood trees burned by the Walbridge fire are removed from private property on Mill Creek Road, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Refuge no more: Forested Sonoma County enclave laid bare by Walbridge fire — and now, by salvage logging

VENADO — A group of ravens fled south against the bright summer sky, escaping the noisy chopper that rose above the ridgeline, starting its daily shift plucking charred, downed trees from steep canyons within the Walbridge fire footprint.

The disturbed birds weren’t the only ones troubled by the din and commotion that have penetrated the once serene Mill Creek watershed — a lushly forested haven before lightning-sparked wildfire ravaged the region last summer.

The flames burned hottest in the remote creek canyons, west of Healdsburg, and around Guerneville’s Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, which remains closed, the risk of burned, standing timber still deemed too high for visitors even 11 months after the fire.

Residents and landowners traumatized by the loss of their homes and community last August are grieving a changed environment, as well, and what feels to many like an invasion, as an occupying force of heavy equipment operators and crews from multiple agencies remains at work in the area.

Bob Alpern, right, and stepdaughter Oona Montgomery watch a logging truck rumble past as redwood trees burned by the Walbridge fire are removed from private property on Mill Creek Road, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Bob Alpern, right, and stepdaughter Oona Montgomery watch a logging truck rumble past as redwood trees burned by the Walbridge fire are removed from private property on Mill Creek Road, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

But what was simply a prolonged intrusion to be endured became acutely personal and painful over the past few weeks, as Pacific Gas & Electric contractors began tagging stately coast redwood trees for removal from burned-out homesites.

The marked redwoods, blackened by flames that decimated thousands of trees throughout the watershed, are the remaining legacy of dense stands that once defined the Mill Creek area and surrounding hills stretching west to the coast.

Redwoods are known for their resilience to fire and many here have sprouted verdant growth in the aftermath of the Walbridge fire, offering hope of their survival — the return of the familiar, the idea that homes rebuilt will be protected by their shade.

“They just need a little time and a little water, hopefully,” Mill Creek Road resident Oona Montgomery said amid a stand of redwoods near Gray Creek, in what had been her mother and stepdad’s backyard. “They just need time to recover.”

Licensed arborists contracted by PG&E to inspect trees in the vicinity of power poles and transmission lines, however, deem the redwoods at risk of faltering. The profuse green growth sprouting from the trunks and the base of many redwoods is actually a sign the tree is struggling to stay alive and in poor health, a local company spokeswoman said.

“PG&E has been conducting a very exhaustive review of the redwood trees because we know how important they are to the community,” Deanna Contreras said in an email. “Our crews inspect trees carefully to make the determination about how to abate hazards, including whether trimming or cutting down the tree is necessary, based on the health of the tree and the fire’s impact.

“We recognize that this tree work may impact the area or individual residents’ properties,” she said. “It is critical that we conduct this important safety work and follow all federal and state regulations that require us to abate tree hazards under and along high-voltage power lines.”

Oona Montgomery's mom lost her home to the Walbridge fire in August 2020. PG&E wanted to cut the redwoods from the property because of a power line easement, but the family resisted the order and placed No Trespassing signs on the trees marked for removal. Photo taken on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Oona Montgomery's mom lost her home to the Walbridge fire in August 2020. PG&E wanted to cut the redwoods from the property because of a power line easement, but the family resisted the order and placed No Trespassing signs on the trees marked for removal. Photo taken on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Fraught experience in fire zone

Frustration in the tight knit Mill Creek watershed reflects a broader set of challenges in communities affected by catastrophic wildfire, as residents trying to reorder their lives at immense financial and emotional cost confront forces beyond their control.

In this case, Cal Recycle, the state’s fire debris recovery arm, is tasked with removing some 6,500 damaged trees from Sonoma County burn zones resulting from 2020 wildfires, a spokesman said.

PG&E, meanwhile, is under intense scrutiny and court orders to ensure its power equipment is clear of hazard trees and limbs, which can trigger the types of failures that sparked devastating Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 and plunged the utility into bankruptcy.

It emerged only a year ago after agreeing to a $13.5 billion settlement with wildfire survivors.

Yet here and elsewhere, as its crews fan out into fire zones, the utility faces blowback from those trying to protect the trees that drew them to the woods.

Fir, madrone and redwood trees lined out by a helicopter are stacked for removal by debris hauler along Mill Creek Road, west of Healdsburg, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Fir, madrone and redwood trees lined out by a helicopter are stacked for removal by debris hauler along Mill Creek Road, west of Healdsburg, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

County and state crews have been removing burned and hazard trees from roads and public rights of way since the Walbridge fire swept across more than 55,000 acres of northwest Sonoma County and burned 156 homes, dozens of them in the Mill Creek area. The blaze erupted from a lightning strike Aug. 17 in the steep, rugged canyons near Austin Creek State Recreation Area, which adjoins the Mill Creek watershed.

PG&E crews were among the early arrivals even as the fire still smoldered, removing burned trees that threatened transmission lines and power poles, risking damage, outages and future fires.

Downed trees — black as charcoal and pitched like matchsticks — still litter the landscape. Elsewhere, browned bottlebrush trees are standing, though for how long is unclear. Some slopes are dotted by cut stumps, the soil everywhere dusty and parched with the forest cover cleared overhead, leaving the ground to bake.

Trees selected for cutting and removal are typically marked with spray paint or plastic tape, color-coded dots or numbers or letters in yellow, green and blue to signify what agency or program is involved.

Two dots signify the future removal of a redwood tree Wednesday, July 14, 2021 along Mill Creek Road west of Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Two dots signify the future removal of a redwood tree Wednesday, July 14, 2021 along Mill Creek Road west of Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

State records show a number of landowners have obtained emergency exemptions allowing them to quickly log their property, taking redwoods and other trees that can diminish in value the longer they are left after a fire.

The result is a daily scrum of logging trucks, dump trucks, pickups, helicopters and crews throughout a secluded area more accustomed to a handful of vehicles passing by each day.

For property owners, most of whom are living elsewhere and some of whom will not be returning, it’s all but chaos as they struggle to track who is on their property and why, amid all the other chores of trying to get back on their feet, after the catastrophic fire.

Monica Muñoz-Torres, who lives above Gray Creek, near the end of Mill Creek Road, with her husband, Gregg Helt, said she has been consistently disappointed by the poor communication and lack of clarity from the “alphabet of organizations” working around the area.

Helt said agreements are struck about what will become of the trees once they’re cut, for example. But then that logging is handled by one crew for one day, and another crew the next time, seemingly without regard for prior arrangements.

His wife said they decided to stay on their property as more and more workers came — “because you have to babysit them every time someone else comes.”

With Mill Creek Road at near the center top of the photograph, a large hillside is mostly barren of trees, Friday, July 16, 2021, logged after the Walbridge fire swept through last August.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
With Mill Creek Road at near the center top of the photograph, a large hillside is mostly barren of trees, Friday, July 16, 2021, logged after the Walbridge fire swept through last August. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Treasured redwoods at issue

When PG&E crews began marking redwood trees in recent weeks, alarm when up in the community, Muñoz-Torres said. She helps lead its 200-plus-member emergency preparedness group.

“There are all of these mature redwoods that, to the best of our knowledge, have been resilient through the ages and are still standing,” she said.

“Tons and tons” of coast redwoods on her own property are marked for removal — 191 to be exact — many not even near power equipment, she said.

Contreras, the PG&E spokeswoman, said the focus of the latest program is “enhanced vegetation management” authorized in high fire risk zones and allowing for PG&E to trim and cut trees for greater clearance around power poles and transmission lines than is standard.

While coastal redwoods in good health can remain within 4 feet of the lines, it is common for unhealthy trees to drop limbs or fail, requiring careful and ongoing scrutiny of trees to prevent this from happening, Contreras said.

Sporadic logging along Mill Creek Road west of Healdsburg has left a patch work of timber, redwood and fir, felled for a power line clearance easement, Friday, July 16, 2021. The Walbridge fire swept through the region last August. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Sporadic logging along Mill Creek Road west of Healdsburg has left a patch work of timber, redwood and fir, felled for a power line clearance easement, Friday, July 16, 2021. The Walbridge fire swept through the region last August. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Montgomery’s relatives, Bob and Carolyn Alpern, lived on 3 acres off the side of Mill Creek Road a the edge of the tiny, historic hamlet of Venado, which, until the fire, still boasted a small wooden post office and one-room schoolhouse that had lasted 137 years.

It is renown as the rainiest spot in Sonoma County — and some years it boasts totals that top the whole West Coast.

Thirty-two of the 64 redwoods on their land were marked with yellow paint or tape to signify a future date with a chain saw.

“We have some of the oldest and tallest trees on our property — redwoods that did not get destroyed,” said Bob Alpern, 93. They got a little charred, but redwoods have a capacity to survive.”

Montgomery and Alpern have torn off the flagging tape and posted “No Trespassing” signs in the areas. That was after arranging to meet a PG&E outreach worker on the site July 7. They invited about 15 neighbors to attend, as well.

They were told they could opt out of the program if they chose. Contreras said that step would initiate a “refusal process” through which PG&E will continue to work with the property owner to explain what the risks are and why certain trees require removal.

“PG&E will not take any chances with safety,” she said.

With Mill Creek Road at the bottom of the photograph, a large hillside is mostly barren of trees, Friday, July 16, 2021, logged after the Walbridge fire swept through last August.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
With Mill Creek Road at the bottom of the photograph, a large hillside is mostly barren of trees, Friday, July 16, 2021, logged after the Walbridge fire swept through last August. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

‘So much loss’

Dan Grout, whose wife’s family homestead was destroyed in the Walbridge fire, leads with Muñoz-Torres the community’s COPE group, or Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies. It came together in the 2019 Kincade fire to establish evacuation routes, phone trees and specific wildfire safety plans in collaboration with Cal Fire and Sonoma County officials.

He said the post-fire period has been confusing and difficult for everyone, and “none of us are that happy with PG&E outreach and communication skills.”

But he said not everyone is angry with the utility company. Some just want it do the work has to do and move on.

“There’s all kinds of trauma and PTSD,” Grout said. “There’s chain saws out here like a swarm of angry hornets, and helicopters, and all kinds of people trespassing, whether legally or not, and not a lot of communication or coordination about it.”

Said Monica Muñoz-Torres, “There’s so much loss, and trees — I think we’re all tree-huggers in a way — trees are all we have left, and it’s so challenging to see there’s this disconnect in what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it. And we just want to make sure we’re a part of this conversation.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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