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Trees Trimmed in Odd Shape to Avoid Power Lines

MONDAY - OCTOBER 10, 2011 - NAPA, CA - Critics are claiming that Pacific Gas & Electric is responsible for killing trees with their pruning efforts. As older trees grow into power lines they are pruned with little regard to their overall health. This tree on Redwood Road near Argyle Street is an example of poor pruning. J.L. Sousa/Register

Napa may be considered a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation, but that does not exempt it from state laws that mandate trees be kept out of the way of utility lines.

According to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state sets the minimum clearance guidelines — so it has little choice when making sure that trees, whether they be grounded on public or private property, do not get too close to its power lines.

But some residents said PG&E and the contractors it hires to trim the trees do have some say in the way the trees look, by the method with which they trim them.

“If you trim the branches rather than chop the top off the tree, you’d be able to save the tree,” said Mt. Veeder resident Mel Boybosa, who said trees in his neighborhood have been dying. He believes improper trimming is the culprit. “The vineyards have cleared everything. (Trees) are a dying species, so we need to keep the ones we have. If they trim them properly, I think everybody would be happy.”

Boybosa, in his 60s, said he has called the tree contractors hired by PG&E to talk about his concerns with the way they clear the lines, but has never received a satisfactory response.

“You get the runaround,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”

About a year ago, a tree-trimming company hired by PG&E trimmed a roughly 80-foot-tall pine tree on Ron Hess’ Mt. Veeder property, Hess said. Three weeks later, the tree was dead, he said.

“They said they would clear the branches and take care of the tree,” Hess, 67, said of his conversation with PG&E prior to the trimming, which he said took between 20 and 30 feet off the top of his tree.

Hess said he contacted PG&E after the trimming and a representative from the company visited the property that now has a dead tree. Hess said he understands the need to keep power lines clear and said he would have been fine with his tree being removed for the sake of the lines, but doesn’t see how he should bear the cost of removing the now-dead tree.

“With these storms coming in, we’re afraid it’s going to come down on our house,” he said.

PG&E spokesman Jason King said the utility will "definitely work with the customer" if a tree dies after trimming. PG&E and its subcontractors are not required to clean up debris after trimming, he said."That is the responsibility of property owners, King said.

King said what the utility is required to do is maintain a clearance of at least 18 inches around lines in urban areas, or those under the jurisdiction of city fire departments, and at least a 4-foot clearance around lines in areas controlled by CalFire.

Trees that come into contact with lines can cause power outages, fires and other hazards to public safety, King said.

King said PG&E tries to work with its customers so the lines are cleared and the trees remain healthy, and consults with various nature-oriented groups to find the best ways to trim trees that get too close to lines.

While their priority is to maintain service safety, King said trimmers can use techniques, like directional pruning, to preserve the life and health of a tree and make the limbs grow away from the power lines.

This technique has been used on older, large Napa trees that now bear a V-shaped hole in their center to allow the lines to go through them without hitting branches.

“Many of the mature trees that you see that are pruned in a V shape or notched in the center were planted long ago when these future conflicts were not taken into consideration,” said Parks Superintendent David Perazzo, who said PG&E is authorized to cut city trees for power line clearance by city ordinance and does so under a city permit.

Perazzo said the city is now more careful about which trees it plants around power lines.

“We do not want to plant trees under power lines that will requiring topping later,” he said. “The Master Street Tree List actually has tree species categorized by the planting space available and the presence of overhead power lines.” 

Consulting arborist Bill Pramuk said bad trimming can be the beginning of the end for a tree and, depending on what time of the year it is done, can result in infestations of bark beetles that can kill a tree. He agreed with the need for keeping lines clear, but said trimming for the sake of power lines is often destructive.

In a newspaper column he wrote last year, Pramuk suggested residents who don’t like the way the trees are trimmed and who have the money act preemptively by hiring their own tree trimmer to prune trees back in a less destructive way before a utility contractor comes in to do the work.

This story has been altered since first posting.

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