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 naparcd.org 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.”