By Lynsey Paulo
AUBURN — Five years of drought, pest infestations and warmer temperatures are transforming some of California’s beloved landscape. Last November, the U.S. Forest Service announced the total number of dead trees in the state since 2010 stands at 102 million on 7.7 million acres of the state’s forests. In 2016 alone, 66 million trees died — a 100 percent increase from 2015.
“Having grown up in the Sierra foothills, to see the ecosystem shift away from conifer forests, is sad,” said Jacob Weinberg, a contracted senior consulting utility forester for PG&E.
Weinberg has a birds-eye view of the devastation as part of the company’s second patrol program.
PG&E patrols and inspects all 134,000 miles of overhead transmission and distribution power lines each year. Since the tree mortality crisis began in 2014, the energy company began conducting a second annual patrol of some of those same power lines in high fire-risk areas, to help prevent wildfires and other public safety risks. And despite one of the rainiest Januarys in memory, the catastrophic number of dead trees remains a serious issue and is expected only to grow.
Last year, PG&E conducted second patrols on 68,000 miles of line, and this year, expects to patrol 73,000 miles a second time. The second patrols come six months after an annual inspection, because weakened trees can die quickly. PG&E will use helicopters to patrol about 10,750 of these miles in 2017.
“It’s a tool we use to help us quickly and efficiently identify where the dead trees are, especially in hard to access areas,” said James Brink, PG&E vegetation project manager.
Once the patrols identify dead trees from the air, the forester marks the spot using GPS. The company sends an inspector to hike in on foot to verify the tree is dead, and then work with the home or landowner to schedule removal.
The aerial patrols allow the company to cover a lot of area in a short time, and reduce the impacts on the ground.
Both Weinberg and Brink are proud of the work they’re doing on behalf of PG&E and its customers.
“I live in Auburn, and grew up nearby. Not a lot of people get to do this in an area that is truly their own community,” said Weinberg. “When I list a tree for work or removal, I quite literally am protecting my community from the fire hazard that these trees present.”
“It’s gratifying to be part of a program like this,” said Brink, “because we have the tools, the ability and the experts in the field who can address this issue. We are prepared to deal with changing conditions as they come, and adapt quickly as a company with the sole purpose of protecting public safety and ensuring electric reliability for our customers.”
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.