By Lynsey Paulo
SACRAMENTO — You don’t have to travel far into the Sierra Nevada foothills to see the devastation. In California, 6.1 million trees died per month between October 2015 and November 2016, bringing the total to 102 million since 2010 from more than five years of drought and bark beetle infestation.
Since California’s tree mortality crisis began, PG&E has worked to protect its infrastructure, and the customers and communities it serves, from wildfires and other public safety threats.
Last week (March 8), PG&E representatives appeared before the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to discuss how the energy company has been combating the threat. That includes additional, extraordinary measures to its regular tree maintenance program that prunes or removes about 1.2 million trees each year, said Kamran Rasheed, PG&E vegetation management manager.
PG&E inspects all 134,000 miles of its overhead electric power lines every year. Additionally, it inspects trees along power lines in high-fire danger areas twice a year. Last year, the company conducted these secondary patrols on 68,000 miles of power line, and this year expects to patrol 73,000 miles of line a second time. About 10,000 miles of line will be patrolled by helicopter.
As a result of these patrols in 2016, the company removed about 236,000 dead or dying trees, in addition to pruning or removing about 1.2 million trees under its annual program to prevent contact with power lines. This year, it forecasts to remove about 233,000 trees to prevent them from contacting lines, sparking wildfires and other public safety risks.
“It gives you an idea of the sheer volume and intensity of the work we are doing,” said Niel Fischer, PG&E vegetation management supervisor.
“This is great work,” said Mark Andre, California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection board member. ”What PG&E is doing will benefit a lot of people as we head into fire season. Tree mortality is a huge issue facing Californians, and we appreciate PG&E’s leadership and collaboration with fire protection and prevention agencies and with property owners across its service area.”
PG&E removes dead or dying trees that could come into contact with power lines at no cost to homeowners, but many of the homeowners didn’t want or know what to do with all their wood and debris.
“Lots of people are asking for our help,” Fischer told the Board of Forestry.
That’s why PG&E created a program for dead tree wood debris clean-up. In 11 counties that have declared tree mortality emergencies, PG&E will haul away the qualifying wood debris at no cost to the customer. The company hauls the debris to sorting yards to be processed into wood chips for use in biomass plants. So far, PG&E has completed work at 1,300 properties. More than 6,000 property owners have requested the work which helps homeowners comply with state defensible space guidelines.
Rasheed described it as “a unique opportunity to help our communities and our customers, and demonstrate our commitment to clean energy. By removing this fuel, we’re helping people to protect their homes, and enabling firefighters access to their property and homes in the event of a wildfire.”
Rasheed points out that if customers identify a dead, dying or diseased tree near a PG&E transmission or distribution power line, they should not attempt to prune or remove it, but should call PG&E at 800-743-500. PG&E will safely remove the tree at no cost to the homeowner.
The company also partners with local Fire Safe Councils by providing funds for fuel reduction and emergency access projects. Last year, PG&E provided funding for 45 projects in 20 counties and plans to provide about $2 million again this year. The company also is part of the Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force.
PG&E will continue its fire detection aerial patrols this summer where five planes fly five routes during the time of day when fires are most likely to spark. Last year, the program detected and reported more than 140 fires, enabling quick response to fires before they spread.
In addition, PG&E worked with Humboldt State University to get ahead of future tree mortality, using historic data to build a five-year predictive map of tree mortality in its service. Results are expected this spring.
And while parts of California are showing above normal levels for rain and snowpack this year, experts say tree mortality will continue for several more years, even after the drought is over.
“While the drought looks like it may be over in some parts of the state, the tree mortality crisis is not. We need to continue to keep the public aware of the fire danger, what they can do to prevent wildfires, and what we are doing to help protect the communities we serve, and where we live and work,” said Rasheed.
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