‘Reckless and egregious’: County supervisors go after PG&E for tree clearing that increased debris flow risk
Santa Cruz County supervisors are calling for investigations into PG&E’s widespread tree clearing and other work in the wake of the CZU fire, blasting the utility for repeatedly flouting state and local laws and worsening the threat of mudslides.
The sharp rebuke follows repeated warnings from state and local regulators who admonished PG&E for hundreds of violations relating to recent work in fire-scorched areas.
Cal Fire notified PG&E of more than 300 individual violations since Oct. 30. Unpermitted timber harvesting, disruption of watersheds and sensitive habitats, lack of erosion control, and violations of residents’ private property rights were cited in a series of notices sent to the utility by Cal Fire Division Chief Richard Sampson.
Each violation carries a fine of up to $10,000, meaning penalties could range into the millions.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors waded into the fray, unanimously voting to file a formal complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. The board also called on the District Attorney, Cal Fire and other agencies to launch investigations into PG&E and — if appropriate — pursue criminal and civil charges.
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Calling PG&E’s actions “reckless and egregious,” 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson said county officials did not take those steps lightly.
“PG&E’s unpermitted actions have exacerbated the threat of debris flow by destabilizing the fire areas that have been scorched,” said McPherson, who had raised the issue alongside 3rd District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “Let’s be clear on this: We welcome responsible vegetation management by PG&E to reduce wildfire risk. But that’s not what has happened here.”
In a statement, PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said the utility disagrees its work is illegal. “These are dead, diseased, dying, decaying or otherwise structurally unsound trees that are tall enough to fall into PG&E electric facilities,” Tostado said, citing a state requirement for trees to be removed in those circumstances.
PG&E is hosting a meeting on the concerns Wednesday with county officials and other involved agencies, according to Tostado.
The Coastal Commission had separately warned PG&E for related violations, as has the county’s Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commission. Detailing mounting impacts to endangered fish species and risk of erosion, the commission urged supervisors to take swift action in a Dec. 3 letter. Scott Creek — providing critical habitat to Coho and steelhead — is among reportedly impacted areas.
The CZU Lightning Complex fire was sparked Aug. 16 as lightning lashed California in a historic siege. Flames chewed across more than 86,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties before the fire was contained Sept. 22. More than 900 homes were destroyed in Santa Cruz County alone, mostly in Bonny Doon, the San Lorenzo Valley and areas of the North Coast.
When the smoke began to clear, miles of rural roads were left lined with the charred remnants of power poles, dangling power lines, and partially burned trees at risk of falling. PG&E crews were among an army of workers who criss-crossed the area to clear roadways, repair infrastructure, and mitigate the risk of another wildfire.
But residents returning home soon sounded the alarm, claiming PG&E’s work crews were showing little apparent regard for their property rights or regulations.
Lompico resident Jenny Gomez accused the utility of demonstrating a pattern of “depraved indifference,” comparing its relationship to rural residents to that of an abusive partner.
Boulder Creek resident Michael Roske said in an email that PG&E left his property strewn with pieces of 200-year-old trees that were undamaged in the fire, calling it “unconscionable.” Another resident — among the dozens writing in to support supervisors’ move — reported the removal of 50 healthy trees on her street alone.
Nancy Macy, chair of the Valley Women’s Club Environmental Committee, said PG&E was misrepresenting its heavy-handed cutting as necessary due to an emergency. “But the emergency was over once they got their power poles back up,” Macy said, “and they kept cutting.”