Tree climber Josh Gilliam, 28, from Fairplay South Carolina, has been around the logging business since he was a little boy, helping his dad after school at his uncle’s logging and tree service company.
He currently works for BKW, a Pensacola, Florida subcontractor for Phillips & Jordan - the disaster relief company contracted by PG&E to remove dead trees on private property that pose a threat to public safety in the Mountain Area. Gilliam is part of a team of 85 to 100 men and women planning to work in Eastern Madera County for the next three to five years.
There are about 250 additional Phillips & Jordan and sub-contractor workers spread out in nine additional counties in Central California doing the same work.
Although Phillips & Jordan crews are fairly new to the Mountain Area, about 100 plus loggers and hand crews with the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and CalTrans have been working on the tree mortality issue the past year.
The latest count of dead trees taken down by PG&E contractors throughout the 10 counties is 200,000 - although the number of trees dying from the unprecedented drought that allowed the infestation of bark beetles increases daily. An additional 104,000 trees have been cut down in the Sierra National Forest.
Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, Phillips & Jordan is a 64-year-old company that specializes in disaster response. The company has done work in 50 states, and has aided with clean ups for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, floods in Colorado, and tornadoes in Alabama.
“Hurricanes and floods are fast moving events that disrupt people’s lives for a long period of time,” Phillips & Jordan Vice President Eric Hedrick said. “The dead trees in this area was and is a slow moving event that everyone will have to deal with for years to come.”
The dead trees are being hauled to the large empty lot on Highway 49 across from the California Highway Patrol office to be sorted, split and ground into mulch. There is about 10,000 tons of dead trees currently on the Oakhurst Debris Management Site, with upwards of 300 tons of mulch a day being trucked to Rio Bravo, a biomass plant in Fresno.
Gilliam was recently on Buckeye Road in the Yosemite Forks Estates subdivision near the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Bass Lake Road (222). It took him about an hour to climb to the near top of a 200-foot tall cedar tree, cutting off branches on the way up. Once at the top, he started cutting off six-foot sections of the tree and lowering them to the ground with a rope.
“It’s a great feeling to be here to help out all these homeowners ... the smile on their face when they see the work we have done for them means a lot to me,” Gilliam said.
Although Tommy Webster, Phillips & Jordan Project Manager for Madera, Mariposa, Fresno and Tulare counties, has had a rare complaint due to traffic delays while his crews are working, by far the majority of property owners in the Mountain Area are relieved to see his crews removing dead trees.
Webster said the primary objective of the clean up is to lesson the possibility of area residents losing power, or worse, having a fire erupt due to a dead tree falling across power lines.
“We want everyone to understand we are here to alleviate this dangerous situation of all these dead trees,” Webster said. “We do our best to be very respectful of private property as well as being understanding to the fact that the residents of the area have lost a lot. It’s heartbreaking, and we are here for the long haul - this project is a marathon for us, not a sprint.”
“I’ve always loved working in the outdoors,” said Gilliam who started climbing trees when he was 17 years old. “I love being above ground ... I feel safer 200 feet up in a tree than I do on the ground.”
That’s saying a lot and the job is certainly not for the faint of heart considering the timber industry is one of the most dangerous jobs there is.
According to Webster, the logging industry claims the life of a tree worker every three days in America.
“You have a one-in-3,000 chance of suffering a fatal accident in this industry,” Webster said. “A soldier has a one-in-3,800 odds of being killed in battle, and a police officer’s odds at dying in the line of duty is one in about 6,000.”
It’s because of those numbers, says Webster, that his company has the strictest of safety procedures - in some cases considerably more stringent than Cal OSHA.
“We take the safety of our workers and the public very seriously,” Webster said. “We go through extreme skill/safety evaluations with every employee, regardless of thier position, to ensure that they are qualified to accomplish the task we ask of them. All crew members project wide are required to be CPR/First Aid Certified and every crew is provided with an Emergency Action Plan, detailing the closest medical facilities and contacts for the sheriff’s department, CHP and fire crews.”
Webster said safety meetings with the entire crew are held every morning to discuss job procedures for the day.
“We require all crew members to discuss any safety hazards they may be aware of in the field and every crew member has the ability to stop work if he or she becomes award of a previously unnoticed safety hazard,” Webster said. “We are not here to only make it safe for our employees, but for the public and the world around them.”
Even with all those policies and procedures, Phillips & Jordan has added yet another layer of safety by retaining North American Training Solutions (NATS) to be onsite every day to provide evaluation, observation and instruction for all personnel.
“Their technical knowledge for tree climbing and tree felling is unmatched,” Webster said. “Their instructors are some of the top climbers in the world, and they ensure that all of our tree climbing and cutting techniques are the safest and most updated methods used anywhere. They also do an exhaustive gear inspection to ensure that there will not be a gear failure when a climber is 200 feet above the ground.”
Webster points out that even flaggers working traffic control place themselves in danger every day they are on the job.
“You never know for sure what a motorist is going to do when approaching a work zone,” Webster said.
Families encouraged to relocate
Due to the length of the job, Hedrick said the company encourages employees to move their families to the area, with the company paying for relocation expenses.
“We have people from all over the country who are temporarily calling this area home,” Webster said. “We have long term leases in area housing and our workers are now part of the community, enjoying the restaurants and shopping like all the residents. Like tourists, we like to spend money too.”
Webster said Phillips & Jordan and its subs are proud to be working on this project and especially proud of the team effort to help the community.
“These people know they are part of a bigger picture - not just here to collect a paycheck,” Webster said.
Hedrick said the company is always looking to hire certified arborists, registered professional foresters for management positions and tree fallers. Those interested should go to www.pandj.com.
“We take a great deal of pride in the work we do,” Webster said. “We hope to bring some much needed relief to homeowners in the area and we are happy to stay here long enough to do just that.”
NOTE: PG&E customers who are interested in utilizing the expanded debris management program should call 1-800-743-5000.