Pacific Gas and Electric’s accelerated wildfire risk reduction program, with more than 100 contractors trimming trees and cutting down trees near power lines in numerous neighborhoods in Tuolumne County, have raised concerns this week among Twain Harte residents.

Jim Johnson, vice president of Twain Harte Homeowners, showed where at least 17 trees have been marked for trimming or removal on a neighbor’s property near his place on Strauch Drive just north of Twain Harte Golf Club.

“These are healthy trees,” Johnson said Thursday. “Half of them are cedars, which beetles don’t like. The sad thing is a tree like this, a healthy 150-foot Ponderosa, there doesn’t seem a need to cut that.”

Twain Harte Homeowners have about 800 members in the Twain Harte area, Johnson said. On Wednesday, John Kinsfather, the president of Twain Harte Homeowners, sent an email to Alisha Lomeli, a vegetation management representative with PG&E.

“People believe this is part of a 12’ clearance program that was originally shown as being voluntary but now is mandated,” Kinsfather said. Residents “are alarmed with numerous large trees on their property being marked, they are very upset by this move.”

PG&E is going to create “a real fire storm and a great deal of animosity and negative publicity which I would think is the last thing they need,” Kinsfather said. “Someone needs to rethink this and quickly before it gets out of hand.”

Kinsfather also said a planned PG&E town hall meeting was cancelled.

Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said Thursday she was not aware of a recent PG&E town hall meeting planned in Twain Harte. She said there was a meeting Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the Best Western in Sonora to share information about the utility’s Community Wildfire Safety Program and a public safety utility shutoff program when wildfire conditions are heightened.

New state regulations

New fire-safety regulations, adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2017, require utilities to maintain greater minimum clearances around overhead power lines in high fire threat areas that include more than 600 linear miles of lines in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

Contract crews working for PG&E started work this week in communities including Big Hill, Mi-Wuk Village, Sugar Pine, Long Barn, Cold Springs, Pinecrest, Ponderosa Hills, Groveland, Cedar Ridge, Tuolumne City, Crystal Falls, Strawberry and Sonora.

Johnson said people talked about stepped-up efforts by tree marking contractors in Twain Harte at a Wednesday meeting of Twain Harte Partners, a group with representatives from the local Rotary and Soroptimists, the chamber of commerce, Twain Harte Lake Association and the local community services district.

“We know about tree mortality,” Johnson said. “PG&E came through to take care of that in April 2016. They cut down 11 beetle-killed trees on my property two years ago. They did a good job.”

Lomeli with PG&E ensured crews cleared up all the slash and other debris initially left behind from the beetle-killed tree cutting in 2016, Johnson said. In the current situation, though, Johnson said he believes PG&E contractors have marked too many healthy, viable trees.

“We have power lines all across Twain Harte,” Johnson said. “Through people’s yards. Along the streets. Around here, people are concerned they’ll take too many trees.”

Hundreds of miles of lines

Pacific Gas and Electric's accelerated vegetation management and wildfire risk reduction projects have stringent requirements for areas designated by the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire to be “Extreme Fire Threat Tier 3.”

The CPUC’s High Fire-Threat District Map, adopted in January 2018, was developed in coordination with Cal Fire and input from electric utilities, communications infrastructure providers and local public safety agencies, Merlo said.

A 9-page Sept. 4 PG&E outline of work standards for accelerated Tier 3 wildfire risk reduction shows a diagram calling for mitigation of all vegetation with 12 feet of conductors, with exceptions for Coastal Redwoods, and refers to a “12 foot overhang zone.”

The target audience for the 9-page outline is all PG&E personnel and contractors “involved in managing and completing activities associated with the Accelerated Tier 3 Vegetation Management Program.”

Merlo said PG&E has a total of 7,100 miles of electric distribution line in extreme fire threat Tier 3 areas statewide. In the Central Valley region that includes Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Madera, Mariposa and Fresno counties, the utility has a total of 1,174 miles of distribution lines in Tier 3 areas. Calaveras County has 343 miles in Tier 3 and Tuolumne County has 271 miles in Tier 3.

Wildfire safety work underway in Tuolumne County involves creating even greater clearances between trees and power lines, including overhanging branches and limbs in extreme fire threat Tier 3 areas.

“When the requirement is four feet of clearance, we cut the vegetation back to 12 to 15 feet to account for growth and ensure it doesn’t get closer than four feet at any time throughout the year,” Merlo said this week. “The additional crews are in the area working to addresses overhanging branches or limbs, which have the potential to come into contact with power lines, by ensuring conductor-to-sky 12-foot clearance.”

Merlo emphasized regulation clearances have increased, and that has changed how much PG&E contractors are cutting around power lines as a requirement. The overhang work that PG&E is accelerating is above and beyond.

‘Rock and a hard place’

Dorothy Moulthrop lives near the Tuolumne Main Canal outside Twain Harte and in July she was concerned about plans to cut down some of the biggest, tallest, oldest trees next to the system of ditches and flumes, the primary drinking water delivery system for 90 percent of Tuolumne County residents.

On Thursday, she said most of the marked trees on the Tuolumne Main Canal she was worried about have been cut down.

“Since mid-July, they have cut down like 50 healthy trees with maybe a couple of Ponderosa that were starting to turn brown at the top,” Moulthrop said. “A PG&E forester did go back and eliminate markings on about 10 large, old-growth, healthy trees. So we’re grateful for that.”

Sierra Pacific Industries, a partner in an effort to protect the Tuolumne Main Canal ditch-flume system from fires and other disasters, said each tree marked for removal earlier this year was evaluated and considered a threat to the water conveyance system.

Now, she said, PG&E contractors have been on her property since Saturday, marking, trimming and cutting trees.

“They came out Saturday and marked one tree to be cut and four trees to be trimmed,” Moulthrop said. “Then they came back Monday and they said PG&E had changed all the rules and now all the trees they marked to be trimmed would have to be cut down.”

She said as of Thursday contractors have trimmed two trees and they’ve cut down three trees so far.

“They’ve marked three other trees they’re cutting down right now,” Moulthrop said before 1 p.m. “One of them is 150 feet tall, probably 150 years old. This guy is huge.”

Moulthrop said she thinks PG&E has been put in a position where they’re taking down all the trees, whether they’re healthy or they’re old-growth.

“On Saturday they said ‘with your permission’ and then Monday they said they had to take them all out,” Moulthrop said. “I feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They feel bad taking the big healthy trees down, but the state has imposed this on them.”

She said the point is Twain Harte people live in the mountains, and guess what? There are a lot of trees, it’s part of living in the mountains. Twain Harte is a mountain community and it’s losing a lot of trees.

She added she understands where PG&E is coming from. She’s losing a few trees and other people are losing a lot of trees. She said there are about 20 trees marked for removal on South Fork Road, near Confidence and Center Camp.

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.”

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

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