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.
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.”
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.