PG&E aims to remove 25,000 fire-damaged trees near power lines across service region

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PG&E aims to cut down up to 25,000 fire-damaged trees in an urgent effort to protect power lines in 13 counties across Northern and Central California, including Sonoma, where last month’s wildfires scorched 137 square miles.

Residents in fire areas may have noticed bright green spray-painted marks at the base of trunks on trees near power lines. They were left by PG&E arborists and foresters who are assessing the trees’ post-fire condition, company representatives said.

Trees marked P1 are deemed dead or dying and designated for immediate removal to prevent damage to power lines, while those marked P2 have secondary priority.

Trees with an FP 1 or 2 mark will be trimmed.

The work is already underway by contract tree-cutting crews along roads and across private property and should be completed by the end of the year, said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman.

The utility, which serves about 16 million people from Eureka to Bakersfield, has been faulted in multiple lawsuits alleging poorly maintained power lines were responsible for the series of fires that started Oct. 8. The cause of those fires remains under investigation by the state.

The utility’s tree work does take place on private property and can spark concerns or consternation for some landowners.

State law requires removal of diseased or dying trees that could contact power lines, Contreras said. The utility also holds easements that allow it access to power lines running across private property.

The utility attempts to contact property owners prior to removing trees from their land, but is not required to gain permission, she said.

Earlier this week, a towering fir tree crashed to the ground as a PG&E crew cleared burned trees along a power line across a 10-acre Kenwood residential parcel owned by Sky Matula’s family.

The work is “deforesting a section of our property,” Matula said. His concern, however, focused on the hundreds more oaks and firs scorched by the Nuns fire that the family must handle, along with the loss of two homes.

PG&E’s tree clearing effort covers Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Marin, as well as Alameda, Santa Cruz, Solano, Yolo, Butte, Calaveras, Nevada and Yuba counties. A breakdown of tree removal by county was unavailable Thursday.

In a video on the PG&E website, Nathan Garrett, the utility’s vegetation program manager for Sonoma County, showed a spot where bark had been scraped from the blackened trunk of an oak tree, part of a typical assessment made by experts.

The scraping revealed the oak’s inner cambium layer, which transports water and nutrients up from the soil. The moisture and pink color of the cambium indicated the tree is “still healthy inside and may survive,” he said.

Trees that still show green leaves over at least one-third of the crown will be left standing and re-examined next year, Contreras said.

The post-fire effort augments PG&E’s vegetation management program, which includes annual inspections of about 100,000 miles of overhead lines and pruning or removal of about 1.4 million trees a year.

There are more than 3,000 miles of overhead power lines in PG&E’s Sonoma Division, which includes all of the county and a few hamlets in northern Marin.

Since 2013, the utility has spent about $1.6 billion on vegetation management, Contreras said.

During the post-fire tree-clearing program, PG&E will remove downed trees or relocate them on the owner’s property at no cost. Landowners must request that service by calling 800-743-5000.

Under the regular vegetation management program, the utility will cut downed wood into manageable size or chip it and leave it on the owner’s property. The wood is “their asset,” Contreras said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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