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Is PG&E going too far in cutting trees for fire safety? A Sacramento group says yes

Here are the trees PG&E wants to cut down in the American River Parkway

PG&E says that trees near the company's power lines in Sacramento's Discovery Park pose a fire hazard, and plan to remove them starting in October 2018. But local activists want to stop the destruction of the lush vegetation, home to local wildlife.
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PG&E says that trees near the company's power lines in Sacramento's Discovery Park pose a fire hazard, and plan to remove them starting in October 2018. But local activists want to stop the destruction of the lush vegetation, home to local wildlife.

Criticized for its role in several catastrophic California wildfires, state utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric is on a mission to clear trees near power lines that could topple and hit lines causing fires.

But is the giant utility going too far? A group of Sacramentans is saying yes.

Some members of the Save the American River Association and the American River Parkway Coalition and others are fighting to stop PG&E from cutting down what they estimate could be 100 cottonwood and oak trees near a major electricity transmission line that runs through the parkway near Discovery Park.

That includes trees flanking the paved recreation trail, they say, based on blue dots the utility appears recently to have sprayed on trees. Saying they fear the utility company is overreacting, the group’s representatives say they want the utility company and the county, which oversees the parkway, to show evidence that trees need to be cut down rather than pruned.

“We do not think that process and planning should be thrown to the wind in a panic over the global problem of dealing with wildfires in California,” the river association’s Betsy Weiland said. “What is the real fire risk here?”

The disputed treeline in Sacramento runs for about a half mile along the north edge of the parkway, south of the Garden Highway and east of Discovery Park.

Weiland’s complaint echoes one earlier this year by some Napa residents who felt PG&E was overzealous in cutting trees there.

PG&E officials say the parkway tree-cutting and brush-clearing project, which could start this month, is part of ambitious maintenance and fire-risk reduction work the company has been doing around the state since 2008 after the California Public Utilities Commission toughened its safety and outage regulations.

The utility company has been criticized in the last year by residents and state officials after a bevy of wildfires tied to downed power lines swept through the state in October 2017.

Investigative reports in May and June from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection linked PG&E to 16 fires in 2017 that killed 18 people and destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings. The PG&E service area covers much of northern and central California, and includes 18,000 miles of power lines. It will spend up to $70 million this year to clear vegetation near those lines, a spokesman said in an email.

In three cases, Cal Fire contends PG&E violated state codes by failing to get rid of trees and vegetation near power lines. PG&E said it is reviewing Cal Fire’s findings.

“Based on the information we have so far, we continue to believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards,” spokesman Paul Moreno said in an email.

He added that the utility has been increasing its efforts lately, writing, “in response to the increased risk of fire danger brought on by climate change and drought, we are doing more to ensure PG&E facilities are safe and reliable.”

PG&E officials did not provide a tally of how many trees they expect to take down. Instead, Moreno said the utility company “will evaluate any tree on a case-by-case basis” near the transmission line right-of-way “that could damage utility facilities should it fall.”

That analysis will focus on compromised trees, such as trees with shallow roots or deformities, as well as trees that are leaning toward the power line, he said. Because the parkway is dense with trees and undergrowth, “more work is needed to keep the line safe and reliable.”

On its website, the utility adds, “If we don’t comply with regulations, we put the public at risk, increase the possibility of outages and face hefty fines.”

It can be hard to know how far to go, though, said Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the state PUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division.

She is pushing utility companies to do a thorough job of clearing vegetation, including cutting down potentially problematic trees, and she suggests that could include going beyond minimum requirements. That may mean cutting a tree, regardless of health, that might hit a power line if pushed over in high wind.

“I’m not suggesting we just go out and cut down all the trees around power lines,” she said. “There is discretion.”

The key is for utilities to develop better analytic techniques to determine which trees near power lines are more likely to be a hazard, and which can remain, or simply need periodic pruning, she said.

Malashenko said her agency has heard or received numerous complaints from around the state about utilities over-pruning or cutting down too many trees. But, at the same time, she said, apparent failure by utilities to adequately trim or cut trees has led to some of the state’s most damaging wildfires in the last year.

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