Fire-Ravaged Counties Push PG&E to Remove 200K Charred Logs

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As this year's wildfire season rages, some victims of last year's fires are dealing with an unexpected challenge beyond rebuilding - repairing their property from damage they say was caused by PG&E, when it cut down burned trees near its power lines.

Last October, the Glass Fire ripped through the 20-acre ranch where Amy Thomason and her husband raised heritage rabbits in the Santa Rosa hills. It leveled their 1930's cabin as well as the house her parents built nearby. But when the couple finally returned, they say they found even more devastation -- caused by PG&E crews.

"They just clear-cut everything, it was just shocking and jarring," said Thomason, a Wine Country corporate event coordinator.

Thomason said the crew didn't just clear charred trees, including two 200-feet tall firs that lined the entrance of what used to be their home and were now at risk of falling; they bulldozed fences, ripped up roads and even buried what was left of a World War II vintage Quonset hut.

"They dumped logs on it, so we were unable to get in and even find my grandfather's tools," Thomason said, becoming emotional as she described what she considers needless damage on top of what the fire already took.

She summoned a PG&E supervisor to the scene and recorded the meeting on her cell phone. "How is it that our property was allowed to be dumped on?" she asked.

"I hear what you're saying, and I can't account for all of our actions," the supervisor said on the recording. "I'll take the responsibility for it but I don't know what the logic was."

Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal Paul Lowenthal said he knows of dozens of resident complaints of piles of burned trees and other debris that were left on their property by PG&E after last year's fires.

"You know, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of trees across the North Bay were felled," he said, surveying the stump of what once was a giant eucalyptus on a parcel of city land. He said PG&E had been hauling away trees after the 2017 Wine Country fires and the 2018 Camp Fire, but it suddenly stopped last year, saying removal was now the property owner's responsibility.

"The volume of trees, creates not only a safety hazard, but future wildfire concerns and risks," he said.

It turns out the problem is not limited to Wine Country. Following the CZU Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains last summer, Cal Fire accused the utility of leaving piles of charred logs and wood debris, as well as building makeshift roads that can wash out in winter rains.

Santa Cruz County separately filed a complaint about PG&E with the state's Public Utilities Commission. While the utility has since removed the disputed debris and has fixed the roads, it has challenged regulators' authority to force it to remove the charred logs.

This week, the utility announced that it had "listened'' to "customer and community requests" in Wine Country and is now offering to haul away logs there for free. But, it said, the regulatory fight is delaying a similar offer in Santa Cruz, although it is removing some logs there under an emergency permit.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson calls the massive logjam "a huge concern."

He says no one should have to prod the utility to do the right thing, so his community can rebuild. "Having these logs laying around all over the place really doesn't help that situation at all," he said.

Thomason says she just got PG&E's clean up offer this month, but she had already arranged to remove many of the logs on her own. She said when she read it, she saw it comes with a price.

"The fine print on that, you waive all claims whether they're future or currently in process -- if you allow them to come onto your property and haul away the wood," she said. "I'm not letting them come back."

While the offer waives damages for having cut down the trees, PG&E’s offer covers damage it might cause while it removes the charred logs. It says removing an estimated 200,000 remaining logs will take until at least the end of summer.

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