Bruce Rayner: Bella is gone, what did we learn?
This is not another news story about Nevada City’s landmark tree. Rather, if you own property with tall trees that you value, are they in danger of being cut down? It’s for your safety, right?
Safety can mean different things to different folks. To you, yes, you don’t want a tree on your house. Then, you moved here choosing the risks of living in a forest. To PG&E, they want to be safe from starting wildfires that bring lawsuits. To the city, they want to be safe from a liability insurance risk pool that is scared of potential, while unproven, libel issues and PG&E. To politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, and the governor, safety means advising the City Council to be done with it, just cut them all down.
Is anyone looking after the interests of the residents? Or tourists? I’d guess that many residents wanting to keep their trees are intimidated by that white ACRT truck that comes by with spray cans, marks your trees and tells you for wildfire safety, they must come down. All told, does this program really prevent electrically caused wildfires?
But wait! Who really controls the cutting and trimming? Who has the right to make a final call? Turns out it’s fairly simple. State laws determine what can be done with trees and power lines. The California Public Utilities Commision directs utilities, PG&E, to follow those laws.
The CPUC is quite organized for the benefit of the consumer with online forms to make an appeal or complaint. Even PG&E is responsive, with an email where you simply request that you be put on their refusal list (email@example.com). They will respond.
Most important are rules buried deeply on the web that describe exceptions to cutting a tree that is mature, healthy, and of value to the owner. That seems to describe Bella, which looked pretty healthy in The Union photos as it was cut up. In PG&E lingo, that is a “MWS” tree. Descriptions of an exception even call out the responsibility of the utility to reroute the lines around the tree if it can’t be trimmed without endangering the tree. Surprisingly, in such a case, tree to line clearance can be as little as six inches. One might ask, did our city government follow those avenues for appeal?
That brings up another issue with power lines and fire. PG&E has stated that the risk of fire is very low with small clearances and MWS trees. Brian Dahle commented in his article in The Union that a wildfire could wipe out Grass Valley and Nevada City. We’re concerned with PG&E electrical fires, not the many fires naturally caused. Still, PG&E has embarked on a program of widespread cutting and power shutoffs in an overkill solution to prevent a few PG&E predictable fires.
Overkill? Predictable? Yes. Consider the blackout in Grass Valley and Nevada City this week. What did it accomplish? First, PG&E is irresponsible for violating the CPUC mandate to maintain dependable power. Did PG&E do all they could to avoid cutting power to 100,000 people? No. These blackouts cost us millions.
PG&E could use existing technology to predict the location of an electrical fire, eliminating the need for blackouts. Unfortunately, the lack of communication between PG&E and CalFire has caused disasters like Paradise, the Kincaid and recent Zogg fires, where damages soared and people died.
Predicting a fire? How could that work? In the ideal scenario, CalFire reps would join PG&E crews at PG&E regional control centers, watching for remote indications of line failures on Red Flag days. Failures are reported instantly, and CalFire would dispatch a crew to the exact location to snuff out any small fire. Thus power can be maintained on the grid.
How does it work now? On a report of a line failure, PG&E first reports it to the CPUC. Then a truck is sent out in a day or two to check the line. By then any fire would be out of control.
If PG&E and CalFire can’t work together, widespread blackouts will continue. PG&E claims they must manually check each line for damage, taking days. If you’re following the logic, why not use their remote reporting system to identify any problems? Power could then be restored as soon as the wind dies down.
I don’t have answers for these questions. After researching this subject for the past year, I do have references for all the issues discussed. I hope this helps with your understanding of what has become a large drain on our lifestyle and economy.
Bruce Rayner lives in Nevada City.
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