Tuolumne County elected officials and residents along the Highway 108 corridor east of Sonora told representatives of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. at a public meeting on Tuesday that better communication was needed regarding accelerated tree trimming and removals to reduce wildfire threats along power lines.
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer made some of the most pointed comments toward the end of a presentation by three PG&E representatives explaining the utility giant’s work that has generated public outcry in recent weeks when people believed contractors were wrongly marking trees that didn’t pose a threat.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that PG&E staff and leadership is very concerned, but people in this county do not see that,” Rodefer said. “I hope you got the message that basically, in terms of messaging this, you have failed. And you need to do better.”
Rodefer and others who spoke at the meeting urged the company to temporarily halt the work and organize a town hall meeting where people could go to get information on its vegetation management program and ask questions.
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt was critical of an event hosted by PG&E at Eproson Park in Twain Harte on Saturday that he described as “chaos.” He said they were trying to answer people’s questions on a one-to-one basis and more than 100 people had shown up by about 9:30 a.m.
“You had four or five people there, maybe six people, but no one seemed to be in charge,” he said. “It took awhile before people realized they were supposed to be lining up. It just was not well handled.”
Becky Johnson, senior manager of vegetation management for PG&E, talked about the company’s program and how the increasing frequency of destructive wildfires in recent years has forced them to expand and accelerate their efforts.
The company has faced lawsuits from people affected by fires that were determined to be caused by trees touching or falling into PG&E power lines, including the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County that killed two people, burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.
New fire-safety regulations approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in December require PG&E to maintain greater clearance between trees and power lines in high fire threat areas, such as Tuolumne County.
“We’re facing totally different types of conditions,” Johnson said. “What we’ve seen in the field is totally unprecedented, and that’s prompting us to take action.”
Some of those conditions include hotter temperatures, years of drought and more than 129 million trees that have died throughout California forests since 2010.
For decades, PG&E has implemented a vegetation management program that involves inspecting about 100,000 miles of overhead power lines each year and annually pruning or removing more than 1 million trees on average.
Supervisors and others who spoke at the meeting largely acknowledged the need for the additional work and wanted the company to remove any threatening trees, but not healthy trees that are spaced farther from power lines than the required 12 feet.
Cameron McClean, owner of the Gables Cedar Creek Inn in Twain Harte, talked about a confrontation he had with PG&E contractors on Sept. 15 after they came on his property without permission and marked trees for removal after he previously told them to leave.
McClean urged them to organize a community meeting and make a greater effort to listen to the concerns of property owners. He said many in the community don’t have a personal issue with PG&E, though the poor communication over the past several weeks has deteriorated public trust.
“We’re at a point now where PG&E has a black eye up here, and people are mad, and now they’re not going to listen in the way they would have a week ago, two weeks ago,” he said, offering to do what he could to help work with the utility on improving communication with the public.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.