Who's Responsible for Trimming Trees Near the Powerline on Your Property?

What California property owners need to know

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Fires caused by power lines have destroyed properties and taken lives in California. If you’re one of the many homeowners with an overhead powerline on your property, you might be wondering: is it your responsibility to keep those lines clear of trees? Or is that your utility company’s job? The answer, it turns out, is that both you and your utility share some responsibility. 

Keep the Space

First things first, don’t get close to powerlines on your property. PG&E says you should stay at least ten feet away from powerlines. If you see a downed powerline, PG&E says to stay 25 feet away, call 911 immediately, and then call PG&E so that it can have a crew respond right away. 

You can reach PG&E at 1-800-743-5000. 

PG&E utility pole graphic
A graphic from PG&E explaining the different lines you may see on a utility pole. Courtesy: PG&E.

PG&E's Responsibility

PG&E said the top two lines on a utility pole are its responsibility, as they are the highest voltage. 

PG&E is required to maintain at least 18 inches of space below the top line, what it calls the “distribution primary line.” However, in areas deemed to have high fire threat (CPUC’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas) and in areas of state responsibility, PG&E must keep at least four feet of clear space from these lines. 

PG&E says it checks all its distribution lines each year. But if you see a problem at any time, call PG&E. The company says it will send someone out to check your power lines. If there is an issue, PG&E says crews will remove or prune trees at no cost to you. 

Not sure which line is which? PG&E can check that too. 

“We don't expect customers to know which is a ‘high voltage line,’ which is the ‘distribution line,’” said PG&E Spokesperson Deanna Contreras. “If you see something that you're worried about, yes, please call us because we want to know about it.”

CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Jon Heggie says you should not try to clear the area around power lines yourself because it's your power company’s job to do so. Also, clearing those lines is dangerous. 

Your Responsibility

Any lines on your property besides the top two distribution lines are your responsibility to keep clear, PG&E explained.

The CPUC determines exactly how much needs to be clear and where but generally speaking, you should keep these lines free of hazards and trees.  

Your responsibility includes the line that connects from the utility pole to your home (the service wire or service drop) as well as communication lines (which provide phone or cable service.)  PG&E Spokesperson Deanna Contreras noted the communication lines are typically the thickest and lowest lines on a utility pole.

“Nine times out of ten, when people call us, it’s the communication lines they’re looking at,” she said.

PG&E and CAL FIRE both say it is not a good idea for you to prune branches or remove trees from these lines yourself. Instead, get a qualified tree professional to help. 

We called several Bay Area companies who told us the cost for this service can range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars depending on what work needs to be done. Many companies will visit your property to offer a free estimate, so get a few estimates and compare prices. Several arborists we spoke with recommend choosing a company that is licensed and insured. PG&E recommends hiring a specially-trained “clearance qualified” contractor. 

Whenever you bring in anyone to trim plants or tree limbs near the line that connects to your home, let PG&E know. It recommends temporarily turning off your electricity while the contractor works.

You can also proactively prevent fire risk: don’t plant trees near your power line.

A utility pole in San Jose next to trees. NBC Bay Area Photo/ Alyssa Goard.
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