PG&E cutting trees near power lines in high fire-risk areas

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PG&E is trimming and removing trees near a high-voltage transmission line along River Road west of Highway 101, an area the utility says has been plagued by outages because of falling trees.

The work, conducted by a PG&E contractor, will cover a 40-foot swath — 20 feet to each side of a 60,000-volt transmission line that runs along the road from PG&E’s Fulton substation to Forestville, said Deanna Contreras, a spokeswoman for the utility.

It comes as the utility, which serves 5.4 million electric customers from Bakersfield to Eureka, is engaged in an accelerated and expanded campaign to clear trees and brush away from overhead power lines.

Standards adopted by the state Public Utilities Commission in the wake of last year’s wildfires require power companies to maintain a minimum 4-foot vegetation clearance around their lines year-round in extreme fire-threat areas, said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman.

These areas, officially designated as Tier 3, cover a broad zone largely in the Mayacamas Mountains from Cloverdale to Sonoma, including the Mark West Creek area, Sugarloaf Ridge and Trione-Annadel state parks, as well as the west county wooded areas stretching nearly to the coast.

There are 69,600 homes and businesses served by PG&E circuits in the county’s extreme fire-threat areas, including 29,200 in Santa Rosa, 7,600 in Sonoma, 4,200 in Healdsburg, 2,700 in both Sebastopol and Cloverdale, 100 in Petaluma and 23,100 in rural areas outside cities.

A map of PUC’s fire threat areas is online at https://ia.cpuc.ca.gov/firemap.

PG&E contract crews are working this week and next in the Oakmont, Kenwood and Sonoma areas.

To maintain the year-round 4-foot clearance, PG&E’s crews will typically trim vegetation to initially create 12 feet of separation from power lines, Contreras said.

In some cases, dead or dying trees or certain species of trees farther than 12 feet from power lines may be trimmed or removed to address the risk of them falling into the lines.

Greater clearance is required around high-voltage transmission lines like those on River Road, Contreras said. That line runs on a PG&E right-of-way across about 50 properties whose owners have all been contacted, she said.

Under state law, the utility is required to manage vegetation near power lines that “could pose a safety concern,” Contreras said. PG&E makes an effort to explain the need for the tree work to landowners, but does not need their consent to proceed, she said.

The River Road work is a “critical project for improving reliability performance” on a transmission line that runs 15 miles, from the PG&E Fulton substation just off Highway 101 west to its Monte Rio substation. There have been nine power outages attributed to falling trees since 2007 in that area, Contreras said.

The first phase of the project, a 5-mile stretch to Forestville, will be completed by the end of the year, weather permitting. Trees to be trimmed will be marked with a blue “T” and trees slated for removal marked with a blue dot. Contreras said she did not know how many would be removed.

While the project is based on improving service reliability, it will also minimize the risk of wildfire-related power failures, Contreras said.

Cal Fire has determined PG&E equipment caused 17 major fires across Northern California in October, and in 11 of the blazes the utility allegedly failed to keep tree limbs clear from its equipment and follow other safety codes.

Cal Fire has not yet released a report on the Tubbs fire, which caused nearly $8 billion in insured losses in Sonoma County. PG&E is anticipating up to $17 billion in potential liabilities from the 2017 fires.

PG&E inspects every mile of power lines each year and more often in high fire-threat areas, Contreras said. The utility typically trims or removes 1.4 million trees a year, plus another 100,000 to 200,000 dead or dying trees as a result of drought or bark beetle infection, mostly in the Sierra foothills.

Amanda Honighausen, who lost her home on Mark West Springs Road in the October wildfires and now lives near River Road, said she was stunned by the extent of the tree cutting in the area.

The 40-foot wide cutting area “seems like severe overkill,” she said.

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

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