PG&E Cited After Deploying ‘Heli-Saw' in San Mateo County Park

In a video posted on its website, PG&E touts the device as a key weapon in its effort to keep limbs away from powerlines that could spark wildfires.

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Cal Fire is accusing PG&E of jeopardizing public safety when it deployed the aptly named Heli-Saw – a whirling bank of blades suspended by a helicopter to rapidly clear tree limbs near power lines – without notice in a San Mateo County park, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned.

In the notice of violation against the utility that Cal Fire released in February, fire officials allege PG&E’s contractor deployed the helicopter-saw device on Dec. 9 in a stretch of PG&E’s Monta Vista-Jefferson high voltage transmission line in Wunderlich County Park near Skyline Boulevard, above Woodside.

In a video posted on its website, PG&E touts the device as a key weapon in its effort to keep limbs away from powerlines that could spark wildfires. The device relies on a vertically arrayed bank of eight, 30-inch diameter tungsten carbide blades -- each powered separately. It can cut through branches up to 10 inches thick and cover more than a mile of territory in a single day – work that could otherwise take weeks to complete.

But in the notice of violation, Cal Fire inspector Richard Sampson raised “public safety concerns” about the saw being used in a public park without notice. Sampson said in the notice that parks officials told him PG&E had previously sought to use parkland for a Heli-Saw landing zone, but told parks officials they didn’t plan to use the saw within the park.

“County Parks had staff on duty at the park while this was occurring, but they had no idea, nor did they know of any warnings issued to the pubic users of the park at that time,” Sampson said in the notice. “No trail or area closures had been placed or signs put out to keep the public out of the area, as would have been the case if the county knew about the operation.”

Sampson estimated that branches of up to eight inches in diameter fell as much as 150 feet to the ground in the park. “This is a concern that would have been raised and protection measures discussed if this had been covered by the required CAL FIRE harvest document if one had been applied for,” he said in the notice.

The operation, according to Sampson, created hundreds of 2-foot to 6-foot-long stubbed limbs that littered the forest floor, that will likely die and create a fire hazard. “All of this in a county park,” Sampson said, adding that some areas where branches have piled up had been recently cleared under a Cal Fire-funded grant.

“This is important work, but it’s also dangerous work,” said state Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), who told us he wants to make sure PG&E doesn’t go overboard as it tries to prevent wildfires. “Using Heli-Saws, I imagine makes sense in certain circumstances…. but it has to be done in a safe and smart way.”

In a statement, PG&E said its Heli-Saw contractor “mistakenly” strayed several hundred feet into parkland after doing permitted work on nearby private land. Because ground crews were on hand before and after the operation at the park, the utility said, there were “no safety issues…nor was the public in danger at any time.”

Meanwhile, Cal Fire has recently accused the utility of not getting permits for more than a dozen other vegetation management efforts in seven coastal counties. For its part, PG&E disputes it needs permits in many cases and said in a statement that it is concerned the permit process could bar it from getting all of its fire control work done in time to meet state and federal clearance deadlines.

But Berman says permits are designed to protect people and the environment.

“We cannot substitute safety for speed, and that's a concern that I have about what PG&E was doing, coming into, in this case, Wunderlich Park in San Mateo county, but also coming into other parks across Northern California,” Berman said.

PG&E says it is conferring with Cal Fire over the Heli-Saw related violation notice as well as the permit dispute.

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