Santa Rosa resident troubled by reported PG&E plans to reduce tree-trimming efforts

SANTA ROSA — Reports that PG&E is significantly cutting back on its tree-trimming efforts across Northern California as a way of reducing wildfire risk is raising safety concerns for some Bay Area residents.

A new story published by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday claimed that the utility was scrapping the program that was once viewed as a key way to prevent fires in the state to focus on new power-line settings as a more effective way of limiting fire risk.

Those who live in parts of the North Bay that were impacted by the deadly and devastating wildfires that have struck Wine Country in years past are unconvinced.

Tubbs Fire victim Richard Lane talks about his concerns over reported plans by PG&E to reduce tree-trimming as a way of mitigating wildfire risk in California.


Santa Rosa resident Richard Lane was a victim of the 2017 Tubb Fire that destroyed his community of Coffey Park. He told KPIX he was concerned about PG&E’s decision to scale back its tree trimming program. The utility’s move comes despite the fact that trees have been known to spark wildfires with catastrophic consequences after making contact with live power lines.

For Lane and many others, the memories of the destructive fire still haunt them. 

“From here, you could look in that direction and see the freeway. There was nothing,” Lane recalled as he gestured to one side of his rebuilt hom. “The first time you drove through the neighborhood after the fire, you had none of your familiar landmarks. You couldn’t find your lot because the streets were all gone, the trees were gone. It was just flat. Nothing.”

Lane worries that the utility is focused on company profits, and not on preventing future fires or aiding fire victims. 

“PG&E will always do what they always do, and it’s all about the bottom line. [It’s] all about keeping their shareholders happy, and it’s never been about the fire victims,” Lane said.

The concerns over reduced tree trimming comes in the wake of past tragedies like the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which claimed the lives of 84 people. Following that disaster, PG&E implemented an Enhanced Vegetation Management Program alongside its regular tree-trimming efforts. 

However, it is this program that is now being scaled back. Mark Tone, the executive director of TURN (The Utility Reform Network), believes reducing tree trimming is not the right approach. 

“PG&E announced that they will stop their tree-trimming program because they want to replace it with their plan to bury 10,000 miles of power line,” Tone explained. “The problem with that is the slowest and most expensive way to prevent wildfires.”

Instead, TURN suggests insulating the overhead power lines as a faster and more cost-effective solution to prevent wildfires. According to Tone, this could be accomplished in a quarter of the time and cost, offering better protection against potential fires.

PG&E, however, is advocating for a different approach, citing the use of new technology that automatically shuts off power to lines when they come in contact with vegetation. The utility points to a claimed “68% reduction in ignitions on such specially equipped circuits.”

While the debate over the most effective preventive measures continues, Lane remains steadfast in his attachment to the region he calls home. As he works on his garden, he reflects on the broader impact of wildfires. 

“Am I worried about wildfires taking out the rest of the state, because we are the breadbasket of the United States. We grow more food here than any other place in the nation. That’s a real concern,” he said. 

As the discussion unfolds, residents and utility companies alike must grapple with finding the best approach to safeguarding communities and natural resources in the face of wildfire threats.

PG&E released a statement in response to inquiries from KPIX on Wednesday. It said in part:

“Every day, PG&E is making the electric system safer and stronger for our customers. Using advanced technologies and rebuilding the electric system from the underground up, we are preventing wildfires, improving reliability and reducing costs over the long term.

As we shared with the Wall Street Journal, PG&E has increased our investment in wildfire mitigation efforts by $2 billion over the last five years (from $3.8B to $5.5B). We develop and implement our wildfire mitigation programs based on the best information and data that we have at the time, and our capabilities have continued to evolve and mature since 2019.

To be clear, the essential work of our trained PG&E arborists and our contract vegetation-management crews to keep trees away from powerlines will continue. Every day, we have more than 5,500 employees and contractors on the job throughout our Northern and Central California service area doing the work to keep trees and limbs from coming in contact with our power lines.”

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