‘Clueless' Tree Crews Left Trees Near Power Lines: PG&E Emails

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A PG&E subcontract tree inspector worried back in 2018 that “clueless” crews were missing at-risk trees near where Cal Fire suspects a leaning and possibly burned tree touched off the Zogg fire in Shasta County, according to emails reviewed by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.

In an email from Nov. 7, 2018, an unnamed Mountain G Enterprises (MGE) contract inspector tells an unnamed colleague that “trees were mismarked” by crews assigned with removing burned out trees that imperiled PG&E’s power lines following the Carr fire in July of 2018.

“There were trees EVERYWHERE standing,” the unidentified inspector emailed to a colleague two years before the Zogg fire left four people dead last September. The author, whose name is redacted, expressed skepticism about leaving burned trees standing until crews could find time to cut them down, given the risk that they could fall onto power lines.

“So we as MGE have said these 3,000 trees are safe till routine (patrols) can get these down on the ground,” the inspector said. “All it takes is ONE dead tree we left standing to go through the brand-new lines to give us a black eye,” the inspector warned.

“Assessing burnt trees is a very difficult task,” he added, “and next to none of all the people are arborist(s).” At another point, he said experienced people had left and “we were left with people who were clueless.”

The emails come as PG&E has said it believes a previously fire-damaged and leaning gray pine – one that may have been earmarked for removal by a Mountain G inspector in 2018 but left standing – could be to blame for starting the Zogg fire, although it says it can’t be sure.

The utility stresses, however, that three separate patrols had checked that same area since then and the qualified inspectors did not find anything amiss.

The company did not respond to questions related to the emails, however, saying in a statement: “We remain focused on preventing major wildfires and are committed to our mission to safely deliver energy to our customers and communities.’’

But critics seized on emails as more evidence supporting apparent lapses in PG&E’s efforts to keep trees from hitting power lines.

“These emails show that there were red flags,” said former CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, who has written briefs to Judge William Alsup seeking modifications to the company’s probation terms stemming from its federal conviction over the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.

Sandoval noted that the November 2018 email was not the only one to raise questions about PG&E’s efforts before the Zogg fire. An unidentified Mountain G consultant forester noted in August 2018 that a colleague had expressed concern that crews were ignoring orders and leaving behind “numerous trees which should be removed.”

In another document, an unnamed auditor reviewing the work of a post-Carr fire crew concluded: “After observing their work that they listed as complete, I have determined that they have a pattern of missed trees, and they are not checking 360 degrees around the trunks of the fire effected trees.”

And, as fate would have it, calamity struck one day after the Mountain G inspector’s blunt Nov. 7, 2018 assessment of post-Carr fire tree efforts. High winds triggered a worn, aging hook on a PG&E tower to fail, sparking the Camp fire in Butte County that ultimately left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.

The utility recently acknowledged that the massive Camp fire disaster diverted the company’s attention from tree clearance in areas like the one where the Zogg fire later started.

But Sandoval says the post-Carr fire emails should have been proof enough “that things were being skipped, that things were being missed and quality was poor -- yet in response to these repeated warnings, PG&E did nothing.”

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