Dealing with disaster

An epidemic projected to kill more than 22 million trees across California has also plagued Eastern Madera County, with government agencies, businesses, and the public frantically at work to remove as many as possible while fire season closes in.

“This is impacting everybody,” said Troy Cheek, Battalion Chief with Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit. “It’s not much different than a tsunami, an earthquake, or a tornado. It affects everyone, except this tsunami took several years to happen, and now we’re seeing how serious it truly is.”

Not all is lost.

In Eastern Madera County, combining public agencies and private companies, more than 200 people have been at work for months toppling and disposing of dead trees.

Add in Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of emergency declaration over the epidemic Oct. 30, and grants and further assistance are being made available to help bring down the costs of tree removal for public and private groups.

Some officials said by partnering with neighbors to form a community plan, it’s even possible for the state to completely fund tree removal or other projects.

These programs were highlighted during a Tree Mortality Resource Fair organized by Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler last Saturday at Oakhurst Elementary School, attended by around 300 people.

PG&E doubling down

One main participant in the tree mortality battle is Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which has nearly tripled its Mountain Area inspectors to protect homes and power lines.

In previous years, there were six inspectors in Eastern Madera County, PG&E spokesperson Denny Boyles said. Now, there’s 17.

Corey Peters, PG&E vegetation program manager said that emphatic response from the company was due to the rising number of dead or dying trees.

“As we get into these hot summer months, we expect to see a rapid rise in tree mortality,” Peters said. “At some point, we’re going to reach a point where this won’t stop until the beetles run out of food.”

He said in 2014, PG&E cut down 2,073 dead trees in Eastern Madera County, from Coarsegold northward. In 2015, that number jumped to 13,158, an increase of more than 600%.

This year, Peters said, the situation requires even more drastic action.

“We forecast and plan to cut down 25,739,” Peters said. “And I suspect from routine patrols and inspections that we will easily go over that number.”

Through a PG&E contract with Utility Tree Service, Inc. of Redding, which subcontracts to companies like ArborWorks Inc. of Dublin and Mowbray’s Tree Service of San Bernardino among others, more than 100 cutters have been at work for months, most visibly in the Bass Lake and North Fork areas where tree mortality can be higher than 90%.

In additional prevention efforts, Peters said PG&E is providing increased funding to fire prevention agencies - more than $100,000 to the Eastern Madera County Fire Safe Council, and expanding efforts to programs like aerial smoke patrols that were first to report 25 potential fires last year.

“We’re also doing studies on where tree mortality is happening and how we can predict where it’s going,” Peters said.

Those who see a dead, dying, or diseased tree near power lines on their land are encouraged to call PG&E, Peters said, at 1-800-PGE-5000 to create a work ticket.

Inspectors are required to respond to those tickets within a week, Peters said. They will then determine whether the trees need to be removed and provide an estimated time, usually within six to eight weeks, for the work to begin.

BIG problem

In cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and several government agencies, Cal Fire has continued work along Road 274 to burn and otherwise eradicate some 1,100 trees it felled in December to mitigate possible hazards on the roadway.

Daniel Tune of the USFS said burning is one of the easiest methods to eliminate the fallen wood, rather than finding funds to transport the trees to another location.

In Mariposa County, Cal Fire is working with county supervisors to establish ‘burn areas’ for the public to take logs to. About 20 sites have been suggested during the preliminary planning. This option, although remote, is a possibility for Madera County.

Once the Road 274 work is completed, hundreds of trees have also been marked by Cal Fire staff for removal on at least 12 other county roads.

Much of that is due to some $83,000 in grant money released from the state’s Fire Prevention Fee (SRA) to Madera County earlier this year, along with an additional $250,000 for tree removal, eat the North Fork Biomass Plant and other fire prevention services.

Len Nielson, Cal Fire Unit Forester, said any wood cut on private property belongs to the landowner and can be used at their discretion where it was cut. It cannot be sold, traded, or bartered unless the landowner has a free permit from the state.

Nielson said other than burning monitored by Cal Fire, which is not open to the public, there wasn’t a good solution to how logs can be distributed. Many ideas have been reviewed and some are being pursued, he said.

“We just don’t have the resources to go and pick up the logs, put them on a truck, and take them somewhere,” Nielson said. “We weren’t built for that. We’re not a logging company, we are California’s fire department and we’re responding to the emergency with the tools we have available now.”

Nielson said slightly more than 100 people are at work weekdays on the tree removal projects, including crews from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

$1.2 million in new equipment

Five portable saw mills, and 10 wood chippers were recently added to Cal Fire’s equipment list at a cost of $1.2 million. Nielson said some of this equipment could be available through the seven-county Tree Mortality Task Force for the Mountain Area depending on its priority compared to projects in other counties.

Tune said because woodcutting season opened April 1, any wood cut on USFS land, around Bass Lake or other areas, is open to the public once they obtain a permit.

A cord of wood is $5, with required purchase of a minimum four cords. A maximum of 12 cords can be purchased. Prices were decreased this season to encourage the public to help USFS in removing the fallen trees.

Permits are available at the Bass Lake Ranger District, located at 57003 Road 225 in North Fork, or by dialing (559) 877-2218.

As part of that work, most campgrounds at Bass Lake are temporarily closed for public safety due to hazardous trees. Those scheduled to open on, or before, Memorial Day include Crane Valley, the Forks, Spring Cove, and Wishon. Closed day use areas also set to reopen by Memorial Day include Recreation Point, Denver Church, Little Denver Church, Lakeside, Pine Point, Pine Slope, and Rocky Point.

Sierra Recreation at Bass Lake can be called at (559) 642-3212 for more information, with reservations available by dialing (877) 444-6777.

Public options

Multiple officials at last weekend’s resource fair said there are many other options for residents and homeowners.

“The strongest thing you can do is get together, form a partnership with your neighbors, and start a community project that focuses on long-term fire prevention,” Nielson said. “Cal Fire has prevention fee grants available for projects like that, and we awarded some this year to the Bass Lake area.”

Nielson said those plans could include taking down dead trees, clearing brush to create defensible spaces, and other work.

Justine Reynolds said once that plan is formed, it can be brought to the four-county Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, where she serves as project manager, to be further developed before applying for grants or other funds.

She said last year, seven projects in Eastern Madera County obtained funding through that method, and she hoped more neighborhoods would find similar success.

“Having communities on board before we go for grants is critical for success in obtaining much of the grant funding available,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds added the council recommends communities work to make their area Firewise - a program to help residents prepare for wildfires - by contacting Madera County Coordinator Roger Maybee. Doing so has the potential for additional funding and lowered fire insurance rates.

Free wood deliveries

Any trees cut down on a homeowner’s land by a PG&E contractor is theirs to keep, Peters said. He added the company can assist in some cases and cut the fallen trees to “manageable lengths” for the owner’s use.

Additionally, any homeowner in the Mountain Area can have a free load of 20 to 30 logs delivered to their property by one of the contractors. To receive a load of logs within the next 60 to 90 days, homeowners need to sign up at the Oakhurst PG&E office, 50150 Crane Valley Road (426), open 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., by providing their name, address, and phone number.