Tree removal sparks concern for Lake County residents in wake of Valley fire

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


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.”

“They got the hint,” he said.

Zalusky similarly placed signs on trees in a 36-acre wetlands restoration project he’s been working on. But when he returned to the site, someone had marked a number of trees for potential removal.

He also stopped a tree-removal company from cutting trees on a neighbor’s property, then put signs up warning crews not to remove those trees. When he returned the next day, some had been cut.

“They decided they have carte blanche to cut every tree they want,” Zalusky said.

Representatives for the public agencies and utilities overseeing the work said that fire damage to the forest is not always readily apparent.

Trees may look healthy on the outside, but still could have suffered internal fire damage that could cause them to weaken, become infested with pests or die, PG&E spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said.

Under normal circumstances, when a suspect tree is located on private property, the owners are contacted and its removal is discussed. But the wake of destruction left by the Valley fire has been deemed an emergency situation that requires quick action, Frisbie said.

“It’s something we’re trying to complete quickly and safely so the communities can rebuild,” McKannay said.

Crews are hauling away some of the timber felled on public land, but leaving the downed trees on private property, Frisbie said.

Only property owners can sell the timber felled on their property, said Greg Giusti, an environmental scientist and forest advisor with UC Cooperative Extension. Mendocino Redwood Company is offering to purchase singed pine and fir trees from residents of the fire zone, even though it normally takes only redwood, he said.

Frisbie said Caltrans is chipping some of the wood it cuts on its rights of way and using it for erosion control. It’s seeking a nonprofit group to distribute some of the timber to low-income residents for firewood, he said.

Giusti said many of the fire-damaged trees likely could survive, and he normally advises private property owners to give them a chance to recover unless they are severely burned or located near a house and causing worry.

“Chances are, except in extreme conditions, those trees are not going to fall over,” at least not for a while, he said. He said conifers often can recover unless they’ve had all their needles burned off.

Giusti said he understands that road and utility departments have liability issues and regulations they need to consider and obey. But officials also should keep in mind the trauma that area residents already have suffered, he said.

“The social impact on people’s psyche, that’s not a trivial matter,” Giusti said.

In addition to visual impacts, some area residents are worried about soil erosion and mudslides if the winter brings heavy rains as predicted.

Giusti said there well could be increased erosion because of the massive amount of fire damage, but most Lake County soils are not prone to mudslides. And cutting down burned trees shouldn’t make them any more likely to occur.

“Root systems are still in place” for years after trees are cut, Giusti said.

He does recommend that people leave branches and leaves on the ground through the winter to help stabilize the soil and reduce erosion and runoff into streams.

But any salable timber needs to be removed before it rots, Giusti said.

In the 3,493-acre Boggs Mountain State Demonstration Forest outside Cobb, logging operations to salvage the burnt timber have begun, Giusti said.

The forest was among the hardest-hit areas and will need to be heavily replanted, he said.

“The forest has been pretty much removed,” Giusti said, describing a landscape that resembles something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It “looks like a collection of telephone poles,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or On Twitter @MendoReporter

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine