Collateral damage

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Bob Dickinson stands on the remains of a redwood on his girlfriend’s property in Paradise. He says the tree wasn’t slated for removal but was chopped anyway.

When Bob Dickinson stopped by his girlfriend’s property in Paradise last week to check on things, he knew it would look different—workers had been busy cleaning up the debris and chopping down trees. What he wasn’t prepared for, however, was to see their three beloved redwoods reduced to stumps.

“I’d spoken with a PG&E arborist and said, ‘You’re not going to take the redwoods, right?’” he told the CN&R, adding that he’d been assured they were safe, as they were 17 feet from the utility’s easement, outside the 15-foot buffer. “My girlfriend had a real attachment to them. They were the only things she had left. What a heart-breaker.”

What’s more, other trees on the property, when felled, damaged a retaining wall and landed on the leach field—Dickinson isn’t sure yet if that was damaged; he’ll wait for the septic inspection—and some of the logs had been removed. He’d been assured that PG&E would not take the wood. His girlfriend, Delores Costello, had wanted it.

Dickinson and Costello are not a unique case. PG&E plans to chop a total of 91,000 trees in the Camp Fire burn area. It’s about two-thirds of the way finished with that effort. Complaints like Dickinson’s are hard to miss on social media.

Thing is, a right-of-entry form isn’t needed for the power company to conduct its work, contrary to what’s required for debris-removal crews, and therefore PG&E doesn’t have the same maps with leach fields and septic systems drawn out. Plus, after requests from Paradise and Butte County officials not to leave behind logs by default, it changed that policy this week—now, tree crews will remove logs unless directed by the homeowner to leave them.

“We made that change in response to safety concerns raised by the town and county—we will be announcing that shortly,” Paul Moreno, PG&E spokesman, told the CN&R. “We wanted to make sure that the wood debris won’t pose a fuel hazard … [or] get in the way of cleanup efforts.”

Prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E embarked on a large-scale effort to cut back potential fuels by “increasing the distance between trees and power lines in high fire-risk areas,” including Paradise, Magalia and the foothills, Moreno said. After Nov. 8, it had a whole new set of issues to tackle. Rather than simply rewiring the Ridge exactly the same, it drew up new maps in some places.

“There wasn’t much infrastructure left standing, so we didn’t replicate the system,” Moreno explained. “We rebuilt the system so we could get power to all of the buildings that could accept power, plus accommodate new growth.”

Then, the utility sent out contracted tree inspectors to assess the situation and mark trees that would need to be removed or trimmed to accommodate the power poles and lines.

Trees marked with a “P1” were a top priority because they posed an immediate hazard. “P2” trees were deemed probable problems and scheduled to be chopped within a year. Those marked “NC” would need to be removed for “new construction,” meaning they would be hazardous to the newly drawn electric grid.

In all, Moreno said, 91,000 trees will be removed from the Camp Fire burn zone. To date, about 60,000 had been chopped down. With easements granted to the utility for construction and maintenance of electric lines, workers—there could be “as many as 2,000 or more working on a given day”—need not ask for permission to enter private property. That can be frustrating for landowners.

“You almost have to be on your property when they’re there,” Dickinson said. “But how, when they won’t let you live here?”

And until now, the crews were instructed to leave any lumber behind unless specifically asked to haul it away. Dickinson said he’d located some of the redwood logs piled up along the PG&E easement adjacent to Costello’s property. He used spray paint to mark them with the address, because he’d like to keep the wood.

On social media, other Camp Fire survivors have complained of issues similar to Dickinson’s: trees falling into the ash footprint, broken septic tanks, damaged driveways. Many have complained about the deterioration of the canopy that attracted them to the area in the first place. Chelsea Dwyer told the CN&R in January that, while she and her husband loved their home in Paradise, it just wasn’t the same—without the trees, she could see straight out to the Skyway from their Bille Road property.

Not all of the trees being taken down are being cut by PG&E, Moreno said. Other entities, like Caltrans and local governments, also are employing arborists and crews to assess hazards and remove trees.

Moreno urged customers to call or email PG&E with special requests or complaints (see infobox). “We also have a claims process, should there be any damage, he said. “We want the process to be smooth for property owners.”

As for Dickinson, he told the CN&R that he already has called an attorney to file a claim against the utility.

“We’d like to be compensated for the lumber,” he said, looking from the stumps up into the sky where the redwoods once towered overhead. “But it’s not about the money—it’s more about the demoralization. It makes you want to give up.”