Sonoma County removing fire-damaged trees by the hundreds

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More than a year after the October 2017 firestorm killed or undermined tens of thousands of trees around Sonoma County, another wave of tree removal is underway in what seems like an interminable effort to clear away the remnants of the wildfires.

The current work involves crews contracted by Sonoma County who began last month cutting down some of the fire- damaged trees still standing and deemed a threat to public safety and infrastructure.

The $1.1 million hazard tree contract, approved in mid- October, includes removal of about 560 trees from public rights-of-way along 90 miles of county roads within the Tubbs and Nuns fire burn zones — a mere fraction of the more than 10,000 tagged early last year for eventual removal.

The latest job addresses trees deemed at “high” or “extreme” risk of falling within a year’s time, and thus most likely jeopardize public safety.

An additional 240 dead and dying trees could be removed under a roughly $500,000 contract scheduled to go before county supervisors for approval Tuesday. The final number is likely tohehe be smaller based on responses from property owners willing to allow crews on their land.

The tree work is another step forward in the wake of devastating fires that left charred vegetation strewn across the landscape, both from flames that blackened 137 square miles of county terrain and extensive fire suppression efforts that lasted for weeks after the initial Oct. 8 firestorm.

County crews and contractors removed an unknown number of trees that posed an imminent threat to those using public roads in the immediate aftermath.

PG&E crews likewise embarked on a large-scale hazard-tree mitigation project through which about 11,000 trees in Sonoma County were either pruned or felled by late February because of fire damage that could cause them to fall on power lines or equipment, company spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

But the whole issue of burned trees and their removal has emerged as a sensitive one among a public traumatized by the catastrophic fires and eager to see nature rebound.

There also has been widespread confusion about responsibility for removal of burned and dead trees, particularly on private property, where landowners face significant expense unless they draw from the limited pool of insurance funds for debris removal, elected officials said.

Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes a large swath of rugged, wooded terrain ravaged by fire, described it as a “cacophony” of mixed messages and misunderstandings related to trees and their fate.

Complaints have arisen over removal of downed trees left behind by firefighters or by PG&E, as well as fears that tree debris left behind by clearing efforts might pose a risk as wildfire fuel or block drainages and cause flooding.

Other residents have been resistant to efforts to remove trees that they believe could still recover if left alone.

“It’s been interesting to me, the evolution of people’s response and emotion over the trees,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Sonoma Valley, where the Nuns fire complex destroyed more than 400 homes.

Some have voiced frustration over inaction on roadside trees like those along Kenilworth Avenue in rural Kenwood. Three large trees have fallen across the narrow road in recent months, alarming residents who must pass under a group of overhanging trees to enter and exit their hillside neighborhood.

“There are several trees with no supporting root structure,” said Gary Kozel, one Kenilworth Avenue resident. “The fear here and the concern here is that someone or something is going to get hit by one of these trees. And it’s not if, it’s when it falls. And there are probably a good dozen trees up there that, give or take, are in that kind of perilous condition.”

Daniel Virkstis, public affairs program manager for Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works, said 11 Kenilworth Avenue trees were categorized at “extreme” or “high” risk of failure during the county’s initial assessment early last year, and thus would be targeted for removal in the current round of tree work.

But he also said that his department is continuing to take input from residents around the county about trees of concern and is committed to monitoring and regularly re-evaluating about 9,000 trees that were among those initially assessed at “moderate” risk of failure over a five-year post-fire window.

Though the county anticipates most of the contract work to be reimbursed by federal and state emergency disaster aid, it would still be too costly to try to address all 10,000-plus trees at once, and potentially unnecessary, as well, Virkstis said. Some trees may survive, despite the odds, even as others deteriorate.

The county is offering to take responsibility for removal of highly hazardous trees at no cost to property owners in a limited number of cases through the project expected to win supervisors’ approval next week.

It would cover removal of dead and dying trees deemed a risk to public safety on private property where access is granted by landowners. Such permission forms were due by October, though some late arrivals have been accepted, Virkstis said. Permits were sent to 105 landowners and about two-thirds have been returned approved, he said.

Gore underscored that the program is not mandatory, and noted that the arborists who evaluated the trees did detailed inspections in each case.

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