Gorilla Tree Service was cited for seven safety violations and fined $23,200 for its failure to prevent the tree-trimming accident that caused the death of a Napa resident and young father of two last summer.
Jeremy Booth, 24, had been working with the Napa-based company for about six months when he and another employee started removing limbs from a liquidambar tree in the 100 block of Karen Drive for the City of Napa on Aug. 15, according to Cal/OSHA.
The other employee was trimming trees from an aerial bucket about 35 feet from ground level, lowering the limbs to Booth using a rope. Booth would then untie the limbs from the rope and feed them into the brush chipper.
While cutting a branch, the other employee noticed that the rope was entering the chipper drum infeed and started yelling to Booth to watch out for the rope. Booth looked up at his colleague, then bent down to try to get out of the way, but the rope wrapped around his neck, pulled him down toward the chipper drum and toward the feed wheel, Cal/OSHA reported.
Although the safety control bar was somehow activated, the 40-inch chipper disc continued operating, rotating at about 1,140 revolutions per minute.
Booth sustained multiple injuries including a deep cut on the neck and a so-called hangman’s fracture with spinal cord injury.
Cal/OSHA concluded that “the accident happened due to the failure to ensure ropes that present an entanglement hazard were prevented for entering the point of operation.”
Gorilla Tree Service was fined $16,200 for failing to prevent the entanglement hazard and $4,500 for failing to guard moving parts of the chipper’s belt and pulley drive as required, according to Cal/OSHA.
Gorilla Tree Service was fined $500 each for five other violations including failing to certify that workers had been properly trained in tree work, failing to provide workers with first aid and CPR training, failed to brief workers on hazards of the job assignment and appropriate work procedures, and failing to equip, maintain and operate the wood chipper in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
“Tree work is a high-risk industry, and safety requirements are in place to protect workers from known hazards,” Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum said in a press release on Monday. “Employers must ensure that workers are effectively trained to use brush chippers and other dangerous machinery safely.”
Marshall Neil, the owner of Gorilla Tree Service, didn’t comment on the Cal/OSHA investigation or penalties on Tuesday. Of the incident, he said: “It’s a sad thing. It’s terrible.”
Although he sustained fatal injuries, Booth’s organs were donated to other patients in need. Family and friends took solace in the fact that his death would help others.
Editor's Note: This article has been modified from its original form to remove the specific address at which the accident occurred and to remove certain graphic details of the incident that were included in the official report.
Here’s a sign of rebirth amid the devastation of the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires – Joe Betz has started rebuilding his Silverado area home.
Workers at his Westgate Drive lot are installing the wooden frames for a foundation to be poured within a few weeks. Betz hopes to have his new house finished by Thanksgiving.
He holds the only rebuilding permit issued by the county as of Monday. County Chief Building Official Michael Zimmer said another permit application is in plan review and might be finished by week’s end.
That means Betz could be the first person to complete a comeback from wildfire damage, although residents who are buying prefabricated homes might beat him.
“I decided I’m not going to be a victim,” said Betz, who owns House of Prime Rib in San Francisco.
At a Jan. 22 community meeting, Napa County officials vowed to put recovery from the October wildfires on the fast track. If people who lost homes have their paperwork together and are rebuilding a similar home, they can obtain the necessary county building permits in a week to two weeks, they said.
“If it takes you awhile to build your house, it won’t be because of the county,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the crowd.
More than 600 homes were destroyed. The Betz case provided an early test of whether the county can follow through on its rebuilding-friendly claims. Betz said he received the permit in seven working days.
“It’s not lip service,” Betz said. “They really, truly tried to help.”
He didn’t expect such an easy bureaucratic ride.
“Of course not,” Betz said with a smile. “Of course not. Are you kidding?”
He’s building the same-sized house the same height in the same footprint, with the same setbacks and driveway. That’s the easiest approach to take to obtain county permits swiftly.
Things went smoothly with his insurance company, Farmers Insurance, Betz said. He found builders by using the same contractor and architect who remodeled the 1980s-era home after he bought it in 2011.
Given all this, Betz appears to have a best-scenario case for rebuilding. In contrast, a county report said about half of the people whose homes suffered fire damage are under-insured.
On a recent day, Betz scrambled around the steep grade of a property being reborn. Workers put the finishing touches on a concrete fence. The landscape also was regenerating, with Betz pointing to burned oaks showing green sprouts.
What a difference from the night of Oct. 8. Betz recalled how his cousin went outside to tie down the umbrella because of the wind and saw the Atlas fire in the hills, prompting Betz to go have a look.
“The sky was red,” Betz said. “Just like this, flames are coming toward us. From there, I went back down, I said, ‘Let’s get out, let’s get out.’ We ran into the car.”
Like many who made a dash to safety, he saw some harrowing sights, forcing him to rethink the initial evacuation route.
“It was a firestorm,” Betz said. “It wasn’t like pieces or embers. There were chunks shooting across the street.”
As he evacuated, he stopped by the house of a friend in the nearby Highlands and woke him up. He called more people to let them know of the fast-approaching fire.
Betz’s house was a total loss. Betz left a car in the garage and the engine melted around the crankshaft. In his backyard, the fire incinerated a metal table, but left lounge chairs near the pool untouched.
Betz keeps his fire story in perspective. He also has a home in San Francisco and a Silverado condominium he owned before buying the Westgate Drive house, so he has places to live.
“We’re fortunate,” Betz said. “We’re not the ones to have to feel sorry for. There are so many people who lost everything.”
Napa County reports that the October wildfires destroyed 653 homes within the county. A county survey of the owners shows that 83 percent intend to rebuild, 16 percent don’t plan to rebuild – presumably they’ll sell the home sites – and the remainder aren’t certain.
More than a year after awaking from an eight-year hibernation, Napa’s showcase to wine, fine food and the arts will soon – finally – bear its name on the building.
CIA at Copia, which the Culinary Institute of America began reopening late in 2016, will be adorned with a package of signs and markers calling attention to its new owner. The makeover will include striping the center’s name in 10 backlit aluminum letters across the metallic, wave-shaped façade in characters up to 45 inches high.
The labeling and signing of Copia should take place over the next 30 days and replace the temporary banners that had been hung at the center since its reopening before their recent removal, according to Thomas Bensel, manager of the institute’s California operations.
Napa’s city Planning Commission on Thursday approved the package, which also includes ground-mounted signs at Copia’s two First Street entrances as well as blade-style markers to be mounted over entrances.
Although city planning staff recommended making the façade lettering smaller to bring it in line with other downtown buildings, commissioners accepted the design as is, partly due to Copia’s setback from First Street, where gardens and a parking lot keep the center nearly 200 feet from the curb.
“The scale may look large but when you look at the scale of the entire building, it actually dwarfs (the letters),” Bensel explained to planners. “Anything smaller tends to disappear.”
Commissioner Paul Kelley agreed, recalling a visit last fall when he observed masses of visitors flocking next door to the Oxbow Public Market and only a trickle walking toward Copia, nearly a year after its reopening.
The original Copia center, burdened by $78 million in debt, closed in 2008 after seven years, and Kelley described its return to the public eye as still a work in progress – a task for which a more eye-catching look is needed.
“For this to be a success,” he said, “the public needs to be able to look at the building – with two seconds of face time – and try to understand what this place is. CIA is bigger than Copia, so that invites people to look and investigate.”
Elsewhere, two-sided driveway markers will be installed at each entrance to Copia – a 7-foot, 9-inch-tall panel beside the east entryway on First Street, and a 4-foot-tall sign at the west entrance.
The larger sign will guide visitors not only to the property as a whole but also its restaurant, store and box office, according to plans filed with the city. Smaller panels hung from wall-mounted arms will mark the separate entrances to those three areas.
Copia’s new signage will put a decorative touch on the overhaul the property has received since CIA purchased the dormant site in 2015 to convert into an extension of CIA Greystone, the St. Helena branch of the academy.
Changes have included an updated interior, the terracing of its grass-lined amphitheater facing the Napa River, and the addition of the rooftop artwork “Is That Bob & Margrit?”, a likeness of Copia’s founding couple Robert and Margrit Mondavi. (Commissioner Gorden Huether, the Napa artist who created the Mondavi artwork as well as another Copia installation, “Fork,” recused himself from Thursday’s vote.)
Visitation resumed with an October 2016 concert in the Copia amphitheater followed by a grand reopening ceremony in February 2017, and the center has continued hosting cooking and wine seminars as well as film screenings, weddings and corporate events.
Napa County will sue PG&E in an attempt to recover county government costs associated with the October wildfires that will tally millions of dollars.
Various news reports and attorneys have speculated that downed and damaged power lines on the windy night of Oct. 8 sparked the multiple fires. Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties previously announced they will sue PG&E.
Acting Napa County Counsel Jeffrey Richard and County Executive Officer Minh Tran had little to say Tuesday about the yet-to-be-filed lawsuit. Tran said the county’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said nothing is more important to the utility than the safety and well-being of its customers. The utility will focus on doing everything it can to help Napa County rebuild and recover.
“Cal Fire has not determined the cause of the fires,” Contreras said.
Napa County has yet to release a definitive list of wildfire costs. A county report gave a rough estimate of about $6 million due to expenses such as fire-damaged tree removal and guard rail replacement along rural roads and revenue decreases such as property tax reductions for burned houses.
The county could recover some of its costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. PG&E is another possible avenue.
In addition, the lawsuit will seek ways to better protect citizens against future possible fires, a county report said without elaborating.
The Board of Supervisors took the first step toward the lawsuit on Dec. 19, when it voted in closed session to start litigation against an unnamed party. County officials at that time said the name would be revealed once the pleading had been finalized and filed with the court.
On Tuesday, the county announced the suit will be against PG&E. Supervisors without comment voted to hire the legal team that will represent the county.
That team is Baron & Budd, P.C.; the Singleton Law Firm; Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire; Dixon Diab & Chambers; Terry Singleton, Esq. and Bruce Bailey, Esq. The same team will represent Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties in their separate lawsuits, a county report said.
The attorneys will advance the costs for the lawsuit and be paid 18 percent of the recovery money they generate. Napa County will spend no general fund money. All four counties using the legal team have the same arrangement.
Lawsuits by the four counties will be part of coordinated proceedings involving hundreds of individual cases against PG&E, a county report said. The Judicial Council has assigned those proceedings to San Francisco Superior Court.
Also on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors looked at saving money for people rebuilding wildfire-destroyed homes. It will explore cutting county building permit fees by about 30 percent for fire victims who repair or rebuild structures.
“It’s the right thing to do for our community,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.
The move could save homeowners several thousand dollars if they rebuild a structure similar in size to the one they lost in the fire.
For example, a person building a 2,400-square-foot home worth $600,000 pays $12,806 in county building permit fees. The money covers such county costs as plan reviews and building inspections.
A 30 percent cut in county fees totals $3,800, leaving fees of $9,006. The building permit fees vary with the size of the home.
Morrison said the county’s building permit tasks are less complicated for someone rebuilding a home, as opposed to starting from scratch. He believes these efficiencies will save about 30 percent in county costs, allowing for the fee reductions without affecting the county budget.
Supervisors will vote on the fee reductions at a future meeting. The reductions would apply to all permits issued in the wake of the October wildfires, so the county would make refunds to people who had previously obtained permits.
Someone building that 2,400-square-foot home in ordinary cases would also pay a $25,800 affordable housing impact fee and $12,648 school fee. Morrison said the housing fee doesn’t apply to wildfire rebuilds of the same size and he believes that same is true of the school fee. People building homes bigger than the originals would pay some amounts of these fees.
County officials previously rejected the idea of reducing building permit fees. They feared doing so would jeopardize state and federal reimbursements of county costs related to the fires. FEMA officials in a Jan. 17 letter clarified that this is not the case, though the agency won’t reimburse the county for lost building fee income.