Almost a year after the secluded Mill Creek community in unincorporated western Healdsburg was devastated by the Walbridge Fire, recovery work is still ongoing. Trucks and heavy equipment roar up the quiet, winding roads, passing leveled properties and scarred landscapes during the weekdays as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) works on two major projects, post-fire tree and vegetation work and the enhanced vegetation management (EVM) program.

As the PG&E work continues, Mill Creek landowners and residents are concerned that too many fire-resilient redwood trees, the last standing resolute symbol of the area, are being marked for EVM and post-fire removal.

“Landowners are understandably protective of what little we have left, the fire-resilient, aesthetic and economically valuable redwood trees,” said Dan Grout, a co-leader of the Mill Creek Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE), in an email to PG&E. 

The Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex Fires, started in west Sonoma County on Aug. 17, 2020, making its way into Armstrong Redwoods and slithering down the heavily wooded drainage basins of Mill Creek, Palmer Creek and Wallace Creek Road, devastating much of the Mill Creek area.

On Aug. 18, the fire ripped through Mill Creek, destroying hundreds of homes in the area and the historic Daniels School, which had just been restored earlier that year.

The towering redwood trees and other species are all that’s left of the community and in addition to the tree removal concerns, there also seems to be confusion regarding EVM rights of refusal for landowners and whether or not the program is optional.

“Many landowners are alarmed at the large number of their mature redwoods recently marked for removal using the new tree assessment tool and yellow dots/ribbons that PG&E's EVM is employing. Most are confused by the many other color-coded tree markings and various tree removal PG&E projects underway, and they are also quite unclear as to what their options are with respect to any rights of refusal they might have for EVM and the other PG&E tree trimming/removal programs,” Grout said.

Douglas Fisher, who lived on Mill Creek Road for 31 years, lost his home at 5450 Mill Creek Road and said the fire wasn’t his worst nightmare, rather it was dealing with a slew of government agencies, contractors and other entities after the fact.

“We’ve had five or six corporations out, all working for PG&E all doing a formal survey, all putting marks on trees and then they go on. When confronted by it they mentioned the EVM program and I said, ‘What about my prior refusal to have PG&E people on my property’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re not PG&E.’ We were told that the reason the trees were marked was because they have cavitation,” Fisher said.  

Cavitation occurs when air bubbles form in the xylem — tubes that run up and down tree trunks of the tree — preventing water from being pulled upward and in some cases, causing the tree to die.

“They couldn’t explain what size cavitation and they couldn’t explain how that compromised the tree and these were people who insisted they were trained arborists. I asked for an interview with a forester and they said they would relay that information. That was June 16 and I haven’t heard anything,” Fisher said.

He said he hasn’t had trees cut down on his property because he’s told workers he doesn’t want the trees to come down and has a refusal, however, since he doesn’t live on the property, he’s worried that workers will cut the trees down anyways.

PG&E has contracted with arborists, such as Atlas, in order to complete work that is part of two PG&E efforts in the area, post-Walbridge Fire tree work and EVM work, the program that seems to be causing the most confusion and concern among landowners.

The EVM program aims to enhance and expand vegetation safety work to address vegetation that poses a higher potential for wildfire risk in high-threat fire areas such as Mill Creek.

According to PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras, the scope of the EVM program includes:

●      Exceeding state standards for minimum clearances around power lines, including pruning overhanging limbs and branches above power lines;

●      Conducting additional inspections, beyond routine patrols, to cut down dead, diseased, dying or defective trees that could harm power lines or equipment;

●      Evaluating the condition of trees that may need to be addressed if they are tall enough to strike the power lines or equipment.

This past year, PG&E’s goal was to complete EVM work on 1,800 distribution circuit miles across their service territory.

EVM work in the Mill Creek area is denoted with yellow markings, but different agencies use different colors and different types of markings. For PG&E, “Xs” indicate tree removal and dots denote tree pruning.

At first it was understood by residents and property/landowners that the EVM program was optional — and there is a refusal process that residents and landowners can enter into — however, Contreras explained that land rights or easement rights that PG&E has on the property to safely operate and maintain its utility facilities, allows PG&E to perform this work. 

“The California Public Resources Code (PRC 4295.5) gives utilities the right to prune trees to maintain clearances pursuant to Section [PRC] 4293, and to abate, by pruning or removal, any hazardous, dead, rotten, diseased or structurally defective live trees,” Contreras said in email.

She said a hazardous tree is a tree that poses an increased potential risk of falling into the lines or equipment due to poor tree health or a portion of a tree that’s dying.

“We understand how important trees are to our customers, communities and the environment. Trees are important to us, too. The reality, though, is that rapidly changing environmental conditions are causing more deadly and devastating wildfires than have been seen previously. We must do even more to be sure trees, limbs and branches are kept safely away from power lines and equipment, to further reduce the risk of wildfires,” Contreras said.

Mill Creek trees

Trees seen in Mill Creek immediately following the 2019 Walbridge Fire.

Post-fire tree work

In addition to the EVM program, PG&E has been conducting post-fire tree and vegetation work.

“PG&E pre-inspectors and vegetation management crews, which include arborists and certified professional foresters, have been conducting tree inspections and mitigation work, including in areas impacted by 2020 wildfires, including the Walbridge Fire area,” Contreras said. “In fire-impacted areas, we trimmed or felled fire-damaged trees that posed an immediate safety risk to safety (P1 trees) during the restoration process and the rebuilding process and are continuing to address additional damaged or diseased trees. Some of the trees that still need work because they pose a hazard to PG&E facilities or public safety are redwood trees. These are labeled P2 in green, fluorescent paint.

“PG&E has been conducting a very exhaustive review of the redwood trees because we know how important they are to the community. Our crews inspect trees carefully to make the determination about how to abate hazards, including whether trimming or cutting down the tree is necessary, based on the health of the tree and the fire's impact,” Contreras continued. 

She said when determining the health of a redwood tree that’s been exposed to fire, they look at several different factors.

According to Contreras, if a redwood tree is in good health, it won’t show any indications of re-sprouting from the bole of the tree resulting in possible tree failure, significant defects and poor trunk attachments related to secondary re-growth from past trunk failure.

Other ways of determining the health of a tree include looking at the crown, the top, of the tree.

A damaged or dying tree will often only have a certain amount of live crown, according to James Strong, a forester with the California Department of Forestry.

“Dying trees means trees which exhibit one or more of the following: 50% or more of the foliage-bearing crown is dead or fading in color from a normal green to yellow, sorrel or brown, excluding normal autumn coloration changes; successful bark beetle attacks with indications of dead cambium and brood development distributed around the circumference of the bole; seventy-five percent or more of the circumference of the lower bole is girdled by wildlife,” Strong said in an email.

A dangerous tree could be any tree that is defective due to a number reasons — such as wood rot, shallow roots, dead top, cracks or splits — and is located on or adjacent to a utility right-of-way or a facility that could damage utility facilities

Redwoods also have extremely fibrous, thick bark, which gives the tree its fire resistant character.

“Redwoods thrive in fire, they don’t die in fire. They are fire resistant,” said Oona Montgomery, a Mill Creek resident who organized a meeting with PG&E on July 7 to discuss the tree concerns.

The Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco nonprofit that aims to protect and restore coastal redwoods and sequoias, says that redwoods can usually survive natural forest fires because of their thick and protective bark that’s rich with fire resistant tannins, the material that gives the bar its reddish tone.

“Redwood Trees are certainly more fire resistant than other conifer species such as Douglas Fir. Their resistance to fire, however, is dependent on several factors but the primary intrinsic factor (excluding aspect, geographic location, surroundings, etc.), would be age. The older and larger the tree, the more resistant it will be,” Strong said. “Fires are all different. They can be extremely destructive to the stand and they can be extremely beneficial to the stand. Like water, fire can destroy, but can also provide great benefits.” 

Contreras said that in dealing with hazardous trees, there can be trees that appear healthy on the outside, but are damaged or dying on the inside.

Mill Creek trees

Trees seen in Mill Creek immediately following the 2019 Walbridge Fire.

Other Mill Creek resident and landowner concerns

While tree and environmental concerns were a large part of the July 7 meeting, neighboring residents attended the impromptu community gathering to voice other frustrations and concerns.

Grout, who was at the July 7 meeting, compiled a list of the concerns that were mentioned during the meeting.

Some of the concerns include PG&E survey and tree subcontractors entering properties without prior notice — allegedly cutting gate lock — often despite landowner objections; PG&E subcontractors leaving trash and creating damage to roads and culverts from heavy equipment; PG&E workers leaving tree trunks and flammable slash on the ground and lack of prior notification from PG&E preceding with tree survey and tree removal work.

“We haven’t even had a chance to process that our homes have burned down … We haven’t been able to start rebuilding our lives,” Montgomery said. “My mom lost her gorgeous house here, we lost everything, everybody up here did. After the fire there were already PG&E trucks up here clearing roads and getting things safe for people, but this has gone on for 10 months nonstop, chippers, helicopters, it has been insane. They just come on your property and start heading up the hill. What are you people doing? ‘We’re cutting for the line. You have an easement, you only have specific feet …’ And it’s been absolutely no communication from PG&E, none.”

When asked how residents and landowners are notified of any EVM or post-fire tree and vegetation work, Contreras said PG&E reached out to the community in advance of the tree work by knocking on doors, leaving door hangers, phone calls and will also be mailing out letters.

“We want our customers to be completely informed about this important safety work. We understand that some customers who have been impacted by the Walbridge Fire have changed addresses and contact information, so we encourage updating contact information with PG&E by either calling us or updating their account at pge.com/myaccount,” Contreras said. “We will work together with our customers to review any additional vegetation safety work identified through our inspection and answer questions. We have also set up a dedicated Enhanced Vegetation phone number, email address and website for anyone wanting to learn more about this important safety work. Customers can contact us at wildfiresafety@pge.com or 1-877-295-4949.”

She said the timing of the safety work can vary depending on when they are able to speak with the customer about the work and any coordination that may need to take place, such as around accessing the property.

Regarding the lock cutting allegation, Contreras said if any customer believes a PG&E contractor did cut a lock, that’s something they’d want to hear about and follow up on.

Montgomery also spoke to the property damage concern, “With the bridge down here, a truck drove through and ripped the side of it and ripped the keypad off and just kept driving. Our road, which is at 9015, we had just put 45 tons of shale down right before the fire and it’s all been dragged down to the bottom. It’s been almost a full time job just to monitor PG&E and the different crews, guys coming in playing baseball, hitting rocks up against my mom’s chimney. We paid to keep this chimney, there’s just no respect. The fire was nothing if that says anything.

Contreras said if a customer believes PG&E or a PG&E contractor damaged property during any work, they can file a claim atwww.pge.com/claims.

In terms of tree work debris, wood hauling and tree/vegetation work cleanup, Contreras said PG&E will chip wood that is less than four inches in diameter and can spread the chips on site. In remote areas, tree crews lop and scatter wood debris in accordance with “best practices to avoid excessive vegetation build-up.”

Larger wood debris that is greater than four inches in diameter is left onsite and legally belongs to the landowner.

“Wood from this enhanced vegetation safety work may be eligible for removal at no direct cost to our customers, provided it is safely accessible and requested by the property owner. Customers who would like us to remove the wood debris from this work will receive a request for wood management form at the time of inspection. Or they can find the request for wood management form available at pge.com/enhancedveg. Completed forms will need to be returned to the safety inspector or emailed to wildfiresafety@pge.com prior to the tree work beginning,” Contreras said.

Grout and Monica Munoz-Torres, the other Mill Creek COPE co-leader, suggested that PG&E create some sort of post-fire tree work and EVM FAQ sheet that can address the many resident and landowner questions and concerns.

“Mill Creek COPE would then be happy to help forward to our Mill/Palmer Creek communities PG&E's FAQ responses to help PG&E more effectively achieve the shared goal of reducing the fire ignition risks along the area's power lines, while enhancing/re-establishing a fire-resilient forest ecosystem,” Grout said in an email to PG&E.

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