Tuolumne County is not under a local state of emergency for the first time since before the massive Rim Fire ignited in August 2013.
The county Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on Tuesday to end a state of emergency for tree mortality that had been in place since September 2015, but vowed that work to remove dead or dying trees will continue along county-maintained roads and national forest land.
“While it’s still a very big priority, the staff would like to recommend that we no longer have a state of emergency,” said Jad Kurdi, an administrative analyst in the county Office of Emergency Services.
This ends a string of local state of emergency proclamations the board has enacted over the past five-plus years, beginning with the Rim Fire in 2013 and followed by drought conditions from February 2014 to August 2017 and storm-related damage in 2017 and 2018.
Kurdi explained that the proclamation initially helped the county coordinate with Cal Fire and other state agencies to get the tree-removal program up and running, but now there is no longer that added benefit because the county is still covered for emergency funds from the state.
Tuolumne County and local partners have completed 60 projects since July 2016 that removed nearly 15,000 dead or dying trees threatening public safety, roads and homes, second only to Fresno County that has removed more than 16,000 trees.
About 3,200 of the trees, mostly threatening homes on private property, were removed through the county’s program with funding from 12 state grants that totaled $2.4 million.
The money came from a fund comprised of a controversial fee rural homeowners were required to pay to the state for fire prevention activities, before it was suspended through legislation signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017.
Mike Albrecht, a career logger who was contracted by the county to help coordinate the projects, said that many homes could have been crushed by dead or dying trees during severe storms over the past three winters.
“If you (the board and county staff) hadn’t had the vision to go after this funding, there would be some people with crushed homes in this county,” he said. “This has been an outstanding team effort and we’ve got outstanding results.”
Albrecht also noted the role having a local timber industry and markets played in reducing the costs for the county, specifically when it came to transporting the felled trees. He said most of the material was used locally to generate electricity at the Pacific Ultrapower biomass plant in Chinese Camp.
County Supervisor Sherri Brennan said she attended a meeting of the state’s tree mortality working group in Sacramento about a month ago and was told that much of the funding provided by the state for tree mortality work hasn’t been used.
“(A number of other counties) have some real problems because there is no capacity to deal with this dead timber,” she said.
Jason Terry, senior county administrative analyst, said the county was unable to use about $400,000 of the $2.4 million it received because some projects were not fully completed due to weather delays prior to the March 15 deadline for spending the money.
Terry noted were no fatalities or serious injuries to people who worked on the program.
“We were spending money about as fast as we were getting it and doing it in a safe, sane and well-thought out manner,” said County Supervisor Karl Rodefer. “I’m really proud of this program.”
Each tree was estimated to cost about $1,000 for an individual homeowner to remove, though the cost averaged about $600 per tree through the county’s program.
County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who worked on the program prior to getting elected, said the cost would have been prohibitive for many of the homeowners who had trees removed through the programs thanks to the collective effort.
“This is an example of where county government gets it right and it really works,” he said. “We’ll never know the lives and property that were saved because of the work you did.”
Anaiah Kirk, county supervisor for District 3, said it was the first time he’s seen something in government cost less than the private sector.
The board recognized other partners in the program that included various county departments, Cal Fire, dozens of local contractors, Pacific Ultrapower, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and the California Office of Emergency Services.
Albrecht also gave a nod to County Administrator Tracie Riggs, whom he said put the project on the map and made it “quick and nimble.”
“Without her leadership, it would have fallen flat on its face,” he said.
While the local state of emergency and program funded by the fire prevention fee are over, the county still has projects planned with money from the California Disaster Assistance Act to remove hazard trees along Big Hill, Parrotts Ferry, Hell’s Hollow, and Deer Flat roads.
There is also funding from the U.S. Forest Service for upcoming projects to remove 4,250 hazard trees from Evergreen Road near Yosemite National Park and 445 dead or dying trees along Buchanan Road near Tuolumne.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.