From way up Fortuna Mine Road above Phoenix Lake, to out on First Avenue in the town of Tuolumne, residents in the Sonora area and other parts of Tuolumne County are seeing more Pacific Gas and Electric contract workers doing fuel reduction projects near power lines.

They were out on Providence Mine Road in Tuolumne town. Brandi Merlo, a spokesperson for PG&E, said there are 100 to 150 more contract workers in Tuolumne County right now.

New fire-safety regulations, adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2017, require utilities to maintain greater minimum vegetation clearances to increase safety of overhead power lines in high fire threat areas that include most of Tuolumne County.

According to PG&E, the new standard requires 4 feet minimum distance between trees and power lines in high fire threat areas year-round, where previously it was required only during fire season. In some cases, the 4 feet of minimum clearance is an increase from previous requirements of 1.5 feet in clearance.

So PG&E contract workers are out cutting trees and shrubs and other fuels near power lines in places like Big Hill, Twain Harte, Mi-Wuk Village, Sugarpine, Long Barn, Cold Springs, Pinecrest, Strawberry, Ponderosa Hills, Cedar Ridge, Tuolumne, Crystal Falls, Sonora and Groveland.

Not a camp

There are signs on and near Tuolumne Road that point to a “PG&E Camp” on Camage Road. This is not a camp where workers are camping and sleeping. The location is set up as a staging area where workers meet each morning for safety briefings. There are portable restrooms and an air-conditioned tent and parking spaces for scores of vehicles.

Contract workers are staying in hotels, Merlo said. They are here to help PG&E with its Community Wildfire Safety Program, and to implement additional precautionary measures intended to reduce wildfire threats.

Merlo calls it enhanced vegetation management work.

“In the highest fire-threat areas, we are partnering with customers to create fire defense zones by reducing vegetation and brush near or under power lines that can act as fuel in case of a wildfire,” Merlo said. “Reducing these fuels will help increase defensible space in communities and improve access for first responders in the event of a wildfire.”

The strategy for PG&E is to accelerate fuel reduction as wildfire threats continue to grow, Merlo and other communications staff with the utility said this week.

“In response to the recent and dramatically increasing wildfire threat in our state, Pacific Gas and Electric Company is accelerating its vegetation management work in Tuolumne County to farther reduce the risk of wildfire and keep our customers, their families and our communities safe,” a PG&E statement from staff based in Sacramento said this week.

Poor track record

Pacific Gas and Electric Company has a lot to answer for in recent years when it comes to fires and fire-starts, so it’s unsurprising to see the utility giant taking aggressive measures to reduce worldfire threats right now. PG&E equipment, including electric power and distribution lines, conductors and failed power poles, ignited a dozen of the wind-blasted firestorms that raged in October 2017 in the Wine Country region, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced in late May.

When PG&E gets blamed for starting massive, destructive, deadly megablazes, like the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County, the costs are enormous.

“The Utility currently believes that it is probable that it will incur a loss of at least $1.1 billion in connection with the Butte Fire,” PG&E administrators said in an 82-page quarterly report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission dated May 3.

The report is signed by PG&E executives Jason P. Wells, senior vice president and chief financial officer, and David S. Thomason, vice president, chief financial officer and controller. It contains the following footnote: “As of March 31, 2018, the Utility entered into settlement agreements in connection with the Butte Fire corresponding to approximately $734 million, of which $657 million has been paid by the Utility.”

In the wake of one of California’s deadliest and most destructive years of megablazes, the utility giant’s stock has taken a beating over the past 12 months. On Sept. 12, 2017, PG&E Corporation stock was trading on the New York Stock Exchange for $70.16 a share. As of Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, it was trading at $46.25 a share. That’s a 34 percent decrease in value in the past year alone.

Fuels and power lines

Joseph Rasmussen, a crew supervisor with contractor Phillips & Jordan, on Tuesday showed where workers have cut down tons of live oak, poison oak, manzanita and other flammable chaparral species near Providence Mine Road in the town of Tuolumne.

Elmer Cabrera, another crew supervisor with Phillips & Jordan, showed where up to a dozen workers recently cleared 1,200 linear feet of power line corridor near Fortuna Mine Road. Workers aimed to clear 15 feet on either side of power poles and power lines, and from the ground to the sky.

Farther up Fortuna Mine Road, contract worker Julio Reyes used a chainsaw to shorten a stump and Kevin Monge used a backpack container carrying herbicide to paint the fresh-cut stump blue, treating it for removal later.

By the end of the work day Tuesday, Merlo said, signs on and near Tuolumne Road that said “PG&E Camp” had been changed to “PG&E Micro Site,” to make it clear there is no camp on Camage Avenue.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation, is billed as one of the largest natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States. Based in San Francisco with more than 20,000 employees, PG&E dates back to 1905 and delivers energy to about 16 million people in Northern and Central California.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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