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Faulkner Park cutting paused

Three people in reflective vests and a man in a gray sweater standing in a park. Three people in the background.
PG&E North Coast Regional Vice President Ron Richardson (right) with other high-level PG&E reps at a community meeting in Faulkner Park.

PG&E has agreed to pause in its plans to remove redwoods from county park. A new assessment tool and line-hardening measures are planned, but details are sparse.

May 9, 2022 — The Faulkner Park crisis has subsided for the time being, in the wake of a community meeting and a consent calendar vote at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

About a dozen members of a group called Friends of Faulkner Park gathered on a sunny Friday morning to hear from high-level PG&E representatives about company plans to remove dozens of large redwood trees that are near the power lines running along Mountain View Road just outside of Boonville.

Faulkner is a much-loved county park, and the Friends, county workers, and Fifth District Supervisor Ted Williams had already succeeded in extracting an agreement from PG&E to hold off on tree removal and look into what it would take to bury the quarter mile of power line. A government liaison also provided assurances that she would maintain communication about the company’s vegetation management plans.

The original slew of yellow X’s indicating which trees were slated for removal were part of the company’s enhanced vegetation management program, which involves aggressively clearing the lines.

PG&E North Coast Regional Vice President Ron Richardson told the group that their advocacy had paid off, saying, “We’ve paused on the removal of these trees…part of that is a thank you to you. Because when you guys seen the X’s, it got our attention, we got out here, we looked at it, we brought leaders out here to look at it, and that’s what drove us to say, hey, we need more data points.”

Richardson also said that Faulkner Park is not at the top of the list for areas in this region that are risky enough to underground power lines right away. Currently, Middletown in Lake County and Wallace Creek in Sonoma County are first up for burying lines. He estimated that the cost of undergrounding the quarter mile of line that runs through a section of the thirty-acre park would cost $750,000 to a million dollars. The county plans to repave the road in the next few years, which he said was valuable information, indicating that the underground option is not completely beyond consideration.

Richardson said the company does have plans to harden the lines with Enhanced Power Safety Settings, a sensitive circuit breaker that lowers the arc if the lines are damaged, which is supposed to reduce the risk of fire from sparks. That program is scheduled to start this summer.

PG&E also plans to start using a new risk-assessment tool to determine whether contractors will take a tree down or trim it. The tool, which is still in development, is supposed to take into account the species of the tree, the angle of its lean if it is not standing up straight, and whether it is stressed or dying. But the assessment seems to be based only on characteristics of individual trees. It is unlikely to take into account the role each tree plays in its environment, or how its removal would affect the other trees around it, possibly making those trees more vulnerable to falling down or even creating conditions that could make fires worse.

The length of the pause and what would precipitate ending it were also not clearly laid out. The new tool is expected to start being used in about a month. Community members were skeptical about the efficacy of the new tool, laughing heartily when Williams asked if they could wait for the next iteration in the event that the new one doesn’t work.

Anderson Valley Fire Chief Andres Avila wrote an analysis of fire behavior in Faulkner Park, explaining why he believes the trees should stay standing. But he also implored PG&E to consider additional values when making its decision, like its importance to kids in the community, its history, and its unique environmental qualities. He spoke about how Faulkner Park, which is mostly cool and heavily shaded by large redwood trees, is at low risk from active fire behavior caused by an incipient fire, the kind that would start inside the park from a power line. He argued that removing the trees would allow new, smaller, oily brush to flourish and present more of a fire hazard than the large trees. “It’s much easier for a line strike to come down and take off into those and then ladder fuels going into the bigger fuels,” he said. While acknowledging that no solution is 100% guaranteed to offer perfect safety, he stated, “I disagree with tree removal here.”

PG&E pledged not to remove redwood trees from Faulkner Park, but clarified that contractors will continue to perform routine vegetation management, which could involve removing smaller trees. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a notice of tree work to trim 16 trees of various species and inspect three others to determine if they are to be topped or felled. Two of those trees are doug firs under two feet diameter at breast height, and one is a large redwood.