PG&E accused of over-cutting trees in Santa Cruz Mountains after wildfire

Wildfires

BONNY DOON, Calif. (KRON) — Wildfire victims who lost their homes to the CZU Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains over the summer have had two very different reactions to PG&E crews chopping down trees on their private properties.

Some say PG&E saved them a lot of work and money by clearing trees.

Others felt violated.

These residents had already lost their homes to a wildfire, and when they realized their trees were also cut down, they felt like it was a double-blow.

PG&E is now facing millions of dollars in fines from Cal Fire and the California Coastal Commission for what some state agencies are describing as over-cutting large trees following the CZU fire.

The fire burned from August through September.

Once it was contained, the utility cut hundreds of trees, including redwoods, madrones, and cypress, in Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Bonny Doon, state agencies said.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors described PG&E logging as “egregious and reckless.”

KRON4’s Amy Larson witnessed tree-cutting crews entering the burn zone just four days after full containment was achieved.

Larson was the only person in the area as crews marked trees to be cut down in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, Bramoor Drive.

The utility was trying to clear the forests of dead and damaged trees near powerlines. But residents told KRON4 that crews acted far too fast, before knowing whether a very old tree could survive or not.

New growth after CZU wildfire
New growth after CZU wildfire

“This tree behind you is one of the largest trees in Santa Cruz County,” said Lisa Uttal.

Uttal’s home in Bonny Doon is surrounded by old growth trees, including redwoods.

Her house was leveled to ashes by the CZU fires, but the trees around her home — some which are more than 100-years-old — mean as much to her as her house.

Uttal is among the residents who told KRON4 that they were shocked PG&E never notified them ahead of time before a fleet of trucks showed up.

“Thanks to a neighbor … he let me know, he said, ‘Lisa, they are cutting trees on your lower property.’ When I came up the next day, there were PG&E trucks all the way up our property.”

Uttal said she had to ask why the crews were there.

PG&E then sent a representative out to talk.

After the discussion, the utility agreed to not cut down any more old growth trees on her land. Uttal wrapped bright green tape around trees that she believes are “perfectly healthy” and have survived many wildfires in the past.

“This is why we live here in Bonny Doon. We have tons of redwoods. I’m really excited because there is already new growth, which is amazing on the bottom on these trees,” she said.

“It really is a wait-and-see game with some of these old growth forests. Redwoods have endured several fires, they will be able to come back eventually,” Uttal said.

Tree chopped down in Bonny Doon

PG&E stood by their actions Wednesday.

Crews removed hazardous trees during an emergency that were “dead, diseased, dying, decaying or otherwise structurally unsound trees that are tall enough to fall into PG&E electric facilities,” said a spokesperson for the utility, Mayra Tostado.

Some Bonny Doon residents who spoke with KRON4 confirmed that some of the trees removed near their homes were likely dead.

Residents said they don’t have much money left after the devastating wildfire, and they were grateful that PG&E did the work for them.

Tostado said, “PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and communities. PG&E disagrees with the characterization that our tree removal work is illegal.  We understand the county, agencies and community concerns regarding this emergency hazard tree removal work. We are actively coordinating with Santa Cruz County to address their concerns.”

PG&E is hosting a meeting with involved agencies on Wednesday to continue discussing the tree chopping controversy.

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