"This is exactly the type of effort we need to replicate in other parts of the state. Tuolumne County has really taken the lead in a lot of areas and cleared a lot of hurdles for other counties to do this work.”

—Chris Anthony, of Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit, who serves as deputy leader of the governor’s statewide tree mortality task force

Jacee Vallelunga, 7, stood with her friend, Mary McCrory, 6, outside her family’s Leisure Pines home Thursday morning watching as a hazard-tree specialist across the narrow street was hoisted 100 feet in the air by a 200-ton crane.

Vallelunga’s mother, Melissa, was standing next to the girls using her cell phone to film the scene as the specialist fired up his chainsaw and began cutting into the trunk of a 120-foot-tall pine tree that’s brown hue stood out from the green ones around it.

The pine was one of more than 750 that have died in the Leisure Pines neighborhood off Highway 108, east of Twain Harte. At least 29 million trees are believed to be dead throughout the Sierra Nevada, a result of a bark beetle epidemic made worse by four consecutive years of drought.

“We really started to notice it last summer,” Melissa Vallelunga said. “You would see the trees start to lose their color and then, within three days, they were dead.”

Contractors hired by the county have removed about 600 fallen trees strewn throughout the neighborhood over the past two weeks as part of a state-funded pilot program to reduce the public safety threat posed by the dry, dead timber.

An additional roughly 150 standing dead or dying trees located near county roads or Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines are due to be cut down and removed from the neighborhood over the coming weeks.

Tuolumne County supervisors, administrators, people from the state Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire officials and several who sit on the governor’s statewide tree mortality task force were at Leisure Pines on Thursday for a tour to see some of the work that’s being conducted.

The project is a collaborative effort involving multiple public and private entities, including the county, state, Cal Fire, PG&E, Caltrans and several contractors and subcontractors.

“This is the first project of its kind,” said Ethan Billigmeier, administrative analyst for the county Office of Emergency Services. “We just want to make sure everybody we’re coordinating with gets a chance to see how the project is coming along.”

Tuolumne County is the first in the state to actually start getting work done on the ground using the state funds.

The Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency on the issue Sept. 15 last year, followed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order in October that provided additional resources and emergency funding for counties dealing with the problem.

“For me it’s kind of a mixed bag, because we’re getting things done. It’s just sad that we’re finally getting it done,” said District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, who sits on the governor’s task force with District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan.

Many private landowners have complained to the county since last year about doing something to address the problem, because removing a single tree can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Although the state funding through Brown’s executive order is not available to individuals or businesses, the county has found a way to provide some indirect relief through its pilot program in Leisure Pines.

Mike Albrecht, co-owner of Sierra Resource Management Inc., was contracted by the county in March to help put together its tree removal program and coordinate efforts with other agencies. County supervisors approved a budget of $440,000 for tree removal work through June 30, of which the state will cover 75 percent of the cost.

The work in Leisure Pines is being done in three steps at no additional cost to the homeowner, as long as trees threatening county roads and PG&E power lines are on their property.

First, PG&E contractors and Caltrans crews cut down the trees marked as dead or dying following an inspection by registered foresters and certified arborists. Second, Sonora-based contractor Type One Tree Service removes the downed logs. Finally, Cal Fire and Baseline Fire Camp hand crews swoop in to chip and clear the leftover branches and stumps.

The logs are taken to a wood yard near the Pacific Ultrapower biomass-fired energy plant in Chinese Camp, where they will eventually be used to make electricity.

Many landowners in Leisure Pines are seeing a benefit as most of the lots in the roughly 120-home neighborhood are relatively small and close enough to both county roads and power lines. Yards that were littered with waist-high piles of logs and branches are now covered with freshly chipped mulch that also helps prevent erosion and improve water retention.

“This is exactly the type of effort we need to replicate in other parts of the state,” said Chris Anthony, of Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit, who serves as deputy leader of the governor’s statewide tree mortality task force. “Tuolumne County has really taken the lead in a lot of areas and cleared a lot of hurdles for other counties to do this work.”

About $6 million worth of equipment has been purchased by Cal Fire specifically for the tree mortality crisis. Some of the new equipment was on display Thursday, including an $89,000 track chipper that ate through a bonfire-sized pile of branches in mere minutes.

Whitney Bray, logistics chief for the governor’s statewide tree mortality task force, said Tuolumne County is uniquely positioned to lead the way on the issue given the amount of infrastructure in the area.

“You guys have the biomass plant and sawmills, which are severely lacking in California,” she said. “You have all the resources to get this done quickly.”

After wrapping up the Leisure Pines project, the county and its partners will shift their focus farther east on Highway 108 to Mi-Wuk Village. They are planning to break the project into three parts because the community is larger than Leisure Pines.

In order to potentially benefit from the program, landowners must sign a right-of-entry permit that allows foresters to inspect dead or dying trees on their properties and the county’s partners to come in later and remove them.

Deputy County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who is often credited with spearheading the effort, said the 100-plus permits sent to Leisure Pines residents were nearly all signed and returned. However, they’ve received some increased resistance from residents in Mi-Wuk Village.

The concerns stem from a clause in the permit requiring the homeowner to waive any liability on the county, state and its contractors for damage to their property, injury or death resulting from the work.

Albrecht assured that all of the entities involved and their contractors are licensed and insured. He said it was imperative for people to sign and return the permits so the work can get started, especially as fire season approaches and the beetle continues to spread.

“I know there’s inherent suspicion of government, but I would encourage people to look at the government as a partner in this,” he said. “The government has no interest in doing anything on this except helping to protect life and property.”

Some still remain skeptical or opposed to signing the agreement, the latter of which applies to former District 4 County Supervisor Mark Thornton, who served from 1997 through 2008.

Thornton believes the language in the permit does not offer enough protections for homeowners and prevents people from seeking reimbursement if their property is accidentally damaged.

“Mistakes and accidents happen with no malice, so I shouldn’t be on a limb there with no recourse,” he said.

Thornton, who lives in Groveland, said PG&E is planning to cut down about 70 to 80 of the 250 dead trees on his family’s property.

Last year, Thornton called on the Board of Supervisors to temporarily suspend property taxes for homeowners with large numbers of dead trees on their land. County legal advisers looked at the issue and determined that tax credits such as what Thornton proposed could only be approved by voters or the state Legislature.

“It’s too little, it’s taken too long and they’re forcing people to sign a document that’s not fair,” Thornton said of the county’s handling of the tree mortality crisis.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo said the liability waiver is required in order for the county to receive funds from the state Office of Emergency Services for the work.

Carrillo said anyone would still be able to legally file a claim or lawsuit if something were to go wrong, but the courts would have to decide whether or not the waiver applies. However, she shot down the idea that the immunity would make the county any less careful.

“From a policy perspective, why would the county or the board want to do anything that harms the citizens of this county whom we all work for and serve? That seems like a silly argument,” she said. “We want to do a good job, we want to help the people and that’s the whole reason we’re doing this program.”

Several in Leisure Pines who were interviewed Thursday didn’t see it the same way as Thornton.

Vallelunga said the waiver gave her pause at first, but she ultimately signed it because there was no way she could afford to pay a contractor to do the work. She was also worried about the potential fire danger from all of the fallen trees left on the ground by PG&E crews last year.

“We kind of felt like we had no choice,” she said. “They’ve cut down quite a few trees here, but they are really good at what they do.”

Suzie Gerlitz, of Leisure Pines, was among those calling attention to the issue last October. Her yard used to be littered with logs from beetle-ridden trees, but they have mostly all been removed over the past couple weeks.

Before the county stepped in, Gerlitz said several of her neighbors received quotes of between $4,000 and $5,000 last fall just to get all of the logs hauled off their properties.

“I have no idea why someone wouldn’t have signed the right-of-entry permit,” she said. “It’s saved us thousands and thousands.”