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Napa County, PG&E removing trees in wake of wildfires

PG&E and Napa County government combined will be cutting down hundreds of fire-damaged trees – perhaps thousands – in the wake of the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns blazes.

These are trees judged as being at risk of falling on power lines and on roads, which means many are in areas seen by the public. Figuring out even an approximate number within county borders is difficult, though.

PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility expects to remove 25,000 trees damaged by Northern California wildfires. She didn’t have a number for Napa County alone and recent fires also burned in such counties as Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Solano and Santa Cruz.

“State law requires we remove dead or dying trees that could impact our lines,” she said.

Meanwhile, Napa County estimates that tree removal along roads could cost more than $1 million, though help from Cal Fire could lower the bill. A county release seeking arborists said 1,500 trees along 28 roads covering a total of 50 miles could be affected.

“It’s a guess,” Public Works Director Steven Lederer said. “We had to give the arborist something to work from. But it is truly an educated guess.”

PG&E will paint florescent green marks or place green tape on trees slated for removal. The county will paint red Xs.

Napa County won’t be treeless when their work is done. By way of comparison, the county in 2016 approved the controversial Walt Ranch project to remove about 14,000 trees to make room for vineyards. That accounts for 6 percent of the trees on the 2,300-acre property.

But tree removal is a sensitive topic. That proved true with Walt Ranch and it’s proving true with the wildfire-burned trees, too.

Mount Veeder resident Gary Margadant addressed the county Board of Supervisors last Tuesday on the topic. Residents on the mountain a few miles west of the city of Napa are concerned about redwoods being cut down that may not be fatally damaged. Redwoods have survived fires through the ages, he said.

“To be casual about that and to wipe out the reason we live up there is very, very detrimental to any type of relationship,” Margadant said.

Redwoods have recently been removed on private property, Margadant said. Mount Veeder residents want to be a part of the conversation with arborists and informed about what is happening, he added.

Contreras said PG&E will go on private property to cut down fire-weakened trees near lines, just as it does for vegetation management in general. There would be an easement known to the property owner. The utility is using foresters and arborists to examine the trees.

In the wake of complaints, PG&E sent an email shared by Napa County. It talked of finding out what crews are doing to engage with customers. It also said property owners can call PG&E at 800-743-5000 to voice concerns.

The county is sticking to tree removal within the public right-of-way along the roads, Lederer said. The exception is if the owner of roadside property with a potential problem tree grants written permission for the tree’s removal.

“If the property owner says they won’t give us permission, we’ll just walk away,” Lederer said. “That will be documented. If that tree becomes a problem later, it will become the private property owner’s responsibility.”

He doesn’t think the county will be cutting down a lot of redwoods in the fire areas.

“The vast majority are probably oaks,” Lederer said. “I would say very, very few redwoods are in play. I’m expecting primarily oaks and just scrub stuff.”

Some fire-damaged trees don’t need an arborist to proclaim them a hazard. Lederer said trees have already fallen onto county roads, though he didn’t know how many.

How many fire-scarred trees pose a hazard on private property is another, even bigger question mark.

Greg Giusti, a UC Cooperative Extension emeritus, at a recent forum estimated that 14.5 million trees in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties could have been affected by the recent fires. But he gave no estimate on how many might need to be removed.

Leigh Sharp of the Napa County Resource Conservation District recommended property owners focus on fire-damaged trees near their homes, driveways and other infrastructure. It might be best to contact an arborist to examine trees near structures, she said.

The district’s website at includes a University of California pamphlet called “Burned Oaks: Which Ones Will Survive?” It tells how to check the cambium tissue beneath the bark to judge a tree’s condition.

Sharp advised taking a different approach for burned trees in the wildlands. Even if these trees fall, they might still provide nutrient value and add back to the environment. Fire-damaged trees may also resprout.

“We are encouraging a wait-and-see approach to the trees, if they’re not an immediate risk of damaging structures, lines, safety, roads,” Sharp said.

The wildfires caused damage along Napa County roads that go beyond adjacent trees. They destroyed 88 warning signs, 70 no-parking signs and 108 posts. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to spend $100,000 on replacements.

In addition, the fires destroyed more than a mile of guard rails—6,000 to 8,000 feet—that a county report estimated could cost $1 million to replace. The federal government could reimburse the money.

Lederer on Tuesday said all county roads are open, but there is a tremendous amount of wood debris along them in some fire areas. There is activity by PG&E, country crews and Cal Fire.

“Frankly, driving roads that people have driven hundreds of times, thousands of times, the roads are different- there are different views, there are different things for people to see,” Lederer said. “I really caution people to be very careful when driving our roads.”

Public Art
‘Dog tags’ to mark Yountville monument to military veterans

Stamped bits of metal identify the men and women working to defend their country. By next summer, giant-size versions of those dog tags will become the centerpiece of Yountville’s tribute to the U.S. armed forces.

The design for Faces of Freedom, a 9-by-7-foot monument penned by an Army captain-turned-sculptor, has gained Town Council approval, putting it on a path toward an unveiling at Yountville’s Veterans Memorial Park as soon as July. Within its frame of black granite will be hung six stainless-steel plaques in two rows, each panel resembling the identifiers worn by American troops for more than 100 years.

Faces of Freedom will be installed on the west side of Veterans Memorial Park, which lies south of downtown at the corner of Washington Street and California Boulevard, according to Samantha Holland, the town’s parks and recreation director.

The council approved up to $73,000 for the monument, which will anchor a space that originally belonged to the Veterans Home of California before being cut off by construction of Highway 29 in the 1950s.

“We didn’t hesitate when it came to getting funds to do this the right way,” said Mayor John Dunbar, a longtime advocate for creating a marker to highlight the park’s veteran-related roots. “This is a very long-term and appropriate memorial.”

Parks officials are basing the installation on a design by Robert Eccleston, whom the town chose from more than 100 applicants.

Eccleston, an artist based in Lake Placid, New York, transformed the simple design of dog tags into 2-foot-tall bas-reliefs with the images of military men and women from different eras and military branches. One tag will not contain a face but instead will include a polished surface to allow visitors to see their reflections and imagine themselves as service members.

The panels will be suspended within a polished granite U-frame whose pedestal will carry the inscription: “All of our dreams stand on the foundation of your sacrifice.” The words “FACES OF FREEDOM” will appear on its top beam.

Installation of the monument is scheduled for June, with a target of July 1 – just ahead of Independence Day – to complete the work.

Yountville began its search for a monument artist in March after abandoning an earlier effort to decorate Veterans Memorial Park with the medallions of each service agency, a plan that would have required the town to get permission from the Defense Department.

Eccleston, who has sculpted military and other monuments for two decades, saw his design win the favor of a Yountville committee drawn from the Town Council, zoning board and Veterans Home residents. Town officials later changed the granite frame from gray to black, and chose stainless steel for the dog tags instead of bronze to discourage theft and vandalism.

Wildfire Heroics
The young woman who helped rescue Napa Valley horses

CALISTOGA — The Diablo winds on the night of Oct. 8 seemed to be gusting from every direction. At least, that’s what Grayson Broyles remembered about that night when her mother woke her because of the Atlas Fire.

She immediately thought about Poppy, a horse she said was stabled up in Soda Canyon directly below Atlas Peak. She wanted to get Poppy out.

Broyles, who is 22, said she called Mary Taylor at Calistoga’s Sunrise Horse Ranch – the stable where Broyles worked part-time — for advice. Taylor called the owner who believed that at that time the horse was not in danger. So, instead,  Taylor asked Broyles to come up to Calistoga to help at Sunrise at Tamber Bey on Tubbs Lane. It was a fateful decision.

Broyles was still nursing a foot injury that occurred in August while loading horses during the Turtle Rock fire evacuation from R-Ranch. She was still on disability from that accident, but nonetheless she put on the orthopedic walking brace boot she had been prescribed, got into her truck and headed up to Sunrise Horse Rescue.

“I just hoped someone else would be able to evacuate Poppy,” Broyles remembered thinking.

Broyles’ relationship with Sunrise is longstanding: growing up with the horses, and volunteering, she had become increasingly focused on her personal goal to become an equine medical tech, and until her injury was Sunrise’s part-time equine health technician.

Meanwhile, Dione Carston in Deer Park had received a phone call from the stable where her horse Charley was boarded at Calistoga’s Blossom Creek Farm just off of Highway 128 near Bennett Lane. The voice on the other end of the line sounded panicky to her. “There’s a fire and we’ve been ordered to evacuate,” she remembered the voice saying. “We have five minutes to get out. Your horse is in the barn.”

Carston said that she was immediately concerned, but her husband Hamilton Nicolson was already springing into action. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“We’re going to get Charley,” he said. They hopped into the truck and headed toward Calistoga.

By the time Carston and Nicolson got to Calistoga, the road north to the stable was already blocked by firefighters. St. Helena Fire Chief John Sorensen had also just arrived on duty, assigned to a firefighting group.

Everything was very confusing, Carston remembered. The fire had already jumped Highway 128 and was moving quickly. But Nicolson knew Sorensen and the three of them got permission from the officer in charge to drive in to try to get Charley out. What they found at the stable was sobering.

According to Carston – and later collaborated by Sorensen – they found fire quickly moving through the trees and behind the stable’s barn and up the hill. Smoke was everywhere. Power was off and though it was pitch dark, the sky was lit by flames. But in the middle of it all, according to Carston, was a small young woman in a walking boot and a man releasing the frightened horses from the barn into the stable’s arena.

It was Grayson Broyles and Doug Scranton.

Sorensen later said that the arena was the only logical and safe place for the horses to go. “The horses were understandably panicked,” he recalled later. “The arena had been cleared all around and there was a concrete curb surrounding it. There were a lot of horses there.”

Broyles had initially gone to Sunrise, but had been told to wait. “It was too soon to move those horses,” she said of the Sunrise herd. But then suddenly, she said, she remembered the horses up the road at Blossom Creek Farm and she decided to try to rescue them.

“Doug said he wanted help,” she recalled. “But he said he didn’t know what to do. I just said ‘I’ll show you.’” The two of them drove up to the roadblock and obtained permission from the fire officer to attempt the rescue.

As soon as Carston and Nicolson spotted Broyles and Scranton in the dark at the barn, they too immediately pitched in to help. They led Charley out into the arena and, then helped move the other horses too. When all the horses were out, the ad hoc squad of rescuers carted buckets of water to them and laid out some food. Broyles remembered, “There were maybe 15-20 horses we got out of the barn.”

“Then I got the call,” said Sorensen. “We had to get out.”

Broyles and Scranton headed back to Sunrise to help there. But the night had only just begun, and frantic calls for help were being fielded from other stables up and down the county. With fires to the north, the east, and the west there were no safe places for people to haul their horses, and little information about how to handle the crisis.

Broyles met up with several other horse rescuers up at R-Ranch off of Capell Valley Road, and – again on the spur of the moment — she suggested, “Why don’t we work together?”

That’s how a second ad hoc horse rescue squad was formed. This group of eight horse owners and lovers became what Broyles called “my hauling squad.” And there were a lot of horses that would need their help.

“We always asked permission to remove the horses,” she said. “Some people were really grateful. Some said they didn’t know what to do. But we always asked for permission first.”

Over the next week this ad hoc squad roamed widely trying to rescue as many horses as they could find: 46 from one location; 17 mares and foals from another; on and on, evacuating perhaps over 300 in total.

Broyles said they took horses as far as the Solano County Fairgrounds and – with the fires blazing across Napa County over the next week – they found little time to rest before the next call would come in. “It was exhausting,” she said. But she said this with a smile because, she said, she loved the horses.

And what about Poppy? The horse she had initially set out to rescue up in Soda Canyon? As the fire on Atlas Peak progressed, Sunrise Horse Rescue did in fact send another crew to rescue Poppy.  But...

“Poppy didn’t make it,” she said with a frown. “The power lines fell over the road and they couldn’t get to her. Poppy got badly burned on her side.” She paused for a moment more. “The vet had to put Poppy down.”

Broyles said what she wanted most was to thank the hauling squad. She carefully listed out their names, checking her cell phone several times: Elaine Thomas, KC Cutright, Aaron Bay, Cody Barron, Michael McGraw, Matthew McGraw, Rachel Lathum, and Trevor Martini.

“They’re the ones who need to be recognized,” she said.

Submitted photo  

Horses were led into the Calistoga arena to escape the Tubbs Fire that was burning outside the stable. “It was the safest place,” according to Grayson Broyles.

Judge dismisses lawsuit over St. Helena's McCorkle housing project

A Napa Superior Court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by neighbors of a McCorkle Avenue housing project in St. Helena who claimed the city wrongly exempted the project from an extensive environmental review.

Judge J. Michael Byrne rejected claims by David and Vickie Bradshaw, suing on behalf of the McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, that St. Helena’s Planning Department had improperly declared the eight-unit housing project exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and that the Planning Commission and City Council had been denied the opportunity to challenge the exemption.

The Bradshaws said they intend to appeal the decision to the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“If you stay with your tentative (ruling in favor of McGrath and the city), we’re going to be in the appellate court for two to three years,” David Bradshaw told the judge during the hearing.

In the meantime, applicant Joe McGrath can continue working on the project. He’s also responsible for paying for the city’s legal defense.

During public hearings on the project in late 2016 and early 2017, the Bradshaws and other neighbors raised various environmental concerns, including toxic contamination caused by a previous property owner whom neighbors described as a hoarder of old cars and junk.

The county required McGrath to haul away the contaminated soil before starting construction. At the time the project was under review, the cost of the clean-up was estimated at $100,000. Clean-up work costing less than $1 million may still be considered exempt from CEQA.

During public hearings, Planning Director Noah Housh and City Attorney Tom Brown said the project was exempt from CEQA under a provision that exempts infill housing projects. As a result, they said the Planning Commission and City Council should only consider the project’s design review, not the broader environmental concerns raised by neighbors.

In his ruling, Byrne agreed that since the project qualified for a CEQA exemption and was considered a “permitted use” under the city’s Municipal Code, staff and the council were correct in limiting their review to matters involving design review.

Byrne also ruled that it was too late for the Bradshaws to introduce new evidence suggesting that the cost of cleaning up the contaminated soil might be higher than previously anticipated.

Even after McGrath excavated 4,500 square feet of contaminated soil to a depth of two feet, samples of the remaining soil still showed elevated levels of chromium 6 and lead, according to an Oct. 30 letter from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is monitoring the clean-up.

The cost of the clean-up will still be well under $1 million, according to Amanda Monchamp, McGrath’s attorney.