Community tree forums

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors has put together a series of forums that will include presentations from experts and time for questions. The dates and locations (each will begin at 6 p.m.):

District 5: April 7, Columbia Elementary School, 22540 Parrotts Ferry Road, Columbia.

District 1: April 12, County Administration Center, fourth floor, 2 S. Green St., Sonora.

Districts 2 and 3: April 14, Twain Harte School cafeteria, 18815 Manzanita Drive, Twain Harte.

District 4: April 19, Tenaya Elementary School, 19177 Highway 120, Groveland.

Private landowners stand to benefit by cooperating with contractors who will assess thousands of dead or dying trees in Tuolumne County in the coming weeks.

The county has been approved for state funding through the California Disaster Assistance Act to remove dead or dying trees that pose a threat to public infrastructure, part of an Oct. 30 executive order signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to combat the sweeping epidemic of tree mortality caused by drought and related bark-beetle infestation.

County officials sent letters this week to 105 Leisure Pines residents asking them to sign a right-of-entry permit authorizing the assessment teams to mark hazardous trees on their property that could fall into public roadways.

Any trees marked by the teams will be removed and hauled away at no cost to the homeowner, as long as they signed the form. However, those who do not consent could be held liable if the trees fall at a later date and cause damage to private or public property.

“This really is a best effort to limit the liability of homeowners and to maintain their safety,” said Tracie Riggs, county emergency services coordinator.

The county plans to start in Leisure Pines on Highway 108, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the alarming tree die-off over the past year, then move to other residential areas as the project progresses.

Private landowners in the county have struggled with the high cost of tree removal. Removing a single tree can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands, not including the price of having that timber hauled away.

“This a free service to them,” said Ethan Billigmeier, staff services analyst for the county Office of Emergency Services, of the upcoming tree-removal work.

The project to remove some 9,000 dead or dying trees near county and state roadways is being coordinated with the cooperation of multiple entities, including Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, Tuolumne Utilities District, Caltrans and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Mike Albrecht, co-owner of Sierra Resource Management in Jamestown, received $336,000 contract to serve as the project manager through June, overseeing the coordination of the assessment teams and identifying project areas.

Albrecht said the various agencies involved with the project have already developed a strong relationship after working together on a number of environmental emergencies in recent years, including the 2013 Rim Fire and four-year drought.

Riggs and her team were recognized with a statewide Challenge Award by the California State Association of Counties last year for developing and implementing a program that helped hundreds of homeowners with dry wells due to the drought.

“These emergencies know no boundaries,” he said. “That’s why working together just makes so much sense, because whether it’s a drought, a fire, a flood or a bark beetle, it affects everybody.”

Attacking the problem through a coordinated effort also helps the agencies use their limited resources more efficiently and give taxpayers the most bang for their buck, he said. For example, the county is coordinating with both PG&E and Caltrans so that tree-removal work doesn’t overlap along roadways and near power lines.

After crews are done assessing and determined the GPS location of each tree to be removed — a requirement to obtain possible federal funding — licensed timber operators will fell the trees and haul away the timber, followed by Cal Fire crews to clean up the branches and leaves left behind.

Cal Fire is already working on projects related to tree mortality near fuel breaks throughout the county, including those in the areas of Big Hill, Lyons Bald Mountain-Phoenix Lake and Yosemite-Fitch Ridge.

All of the fuel-break projects are being funded through grants totaling $432,000 from the state’s fire prevention fee that were awarded to the Tuolumne County Fire Department and Highway 108 FireSafe Council last month.

“Our focus is all on tree mortality and it just happens to be that helps bolster our fuel breaks,” said Jeff Sanders, division chief of Cal Fire’s Baseline Conservation Camp, which has done the vast majority of the work on the ground.

While this winter has provided more rain and snow than the past four, it won’t be enough to reverse the tree mortality problem. The impact on vulnerable, water-thirsty trees remains to be seen, but the recent weather won’t resurrect the tens of millions of trees that have already died throughout the state.

Officials believe the problem and project will likely continue for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, they say the public’s cooperation and patience will be vital to ensuring the operation’s success.

“We’re moving as fast as we can and safely as possible,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to fix it overnight, so you may not see work in your neighborhood right away. Everything’s based on a priority system, with the public’s safety in mind.”