Upfront: The Long Branch

Regional tree trimmer faces questions over accountability in North Bay fires

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Davey Tree Expert Company is under contract with PG&E to provide tree-trimming services in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties.

It was an interesting, observable irony: As the North Bay fires burned, tree trimmers under contract with PG&E were noticeably active around the region.

In late October, trucks from the Davey Tree Expert Company (Davey) were spotted hard at work around West Marin and in places like far-flung and fire-sensitive Bolinas, cutting branches away from power lines, while smoke from Sonoma County still lingered in Hicks Valley.

The flurry of tree-trimming activity late in fire season was undertaken while firefighters from as far away as Australia battled the blazes, while no firefighters drove north from Bolinas to pitch in, given what one firefighter described recently (before the rains arrived) as “the tinderbox conditions” locally. So, shouldn’t the trees be trimmed before fire season, and not while fires are actually burning?

State law requires that PG&E, an investor-owned company and the largest utility company in the state, maintain a buffer zone of 18 inches to 8 feet between tree branches and its power lines (the buffer space depends on the voltage of the power lines). The company does this through its Vegetation Management Program. Yet it appeared that the company had some catching up to do on that front in late October, at least in West Marin. Davey provides tree-trimming services in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties under its contract with PG&E.

Davey, an employee-owned company based in Kent, Ohio, with business throughout the United States, says the regional tree-trimming work is on schedule under the terms of its four-year contract with PG&E, which runs through December 2019.

“Routine work schedules for 2017 are proceeding as planned with the assigned local crews,” says Davey spokeswoman Jennifer Lennox in response to an inquiry about the apparent recent uptick in tree-trimming activities in West Marin. “Davey has provided additional resources from outside of the Marin/Sonoma/Napa operations,” she adds, “to assist in power restoration in the fire areas.”

If, as Joe Biden likes to say, the past is indeed prologue, then tree-trimming activities in the North Bay will likely come into sharper focus in coming months as questions about accountability are sorted out by Cal Fire investigators, plaintiff’s lawyers and civil juries.

PG&E-contracted tree trimmers, including Davey, have been roped in on previous lawsuits centered on wildfires and power lines as recently as 2015.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of victims of the 2015 Butte fire in Amador County against PG&E and Trees Inc. claims the utility and its contractor were negligent in tree-trimming activities, and that the fire started when power lines came into contact with a tree.

Davey has been caught up in at least one fire-related lawsuit brought against the utility. The U.S. Forest Service sued PG&E and Davey for their role in the 2008 Whiskey fire in Mendocino National Forest, when branches from a gray pine tree that were 2 feet from power lines ignited and burned some 5,000 acres at a cost of $5 million, according to Forest Service documents.

PG&E, Davey and a second contractor, ACRT Inc., were ordered to pay $5.5 million, split among the parties, all of whom denied any liability for the fire even as they agreed to the settlement.

As for the recent fires, which dwarf the Whiskey and Butte fires in their scale and damage, PG&E has already been sued in state superior court by dozens of burned-out residents for its alleged role in the fires. But Davey is so far not a part of the public chain of accountability stemming from the North Bay fires—even as local radio stations are heavy with advertising from plaintiff’s law firms who say inadequate attention to tree trimming played a role in the historic October fires.

Lennox confirms that the company “does provide vegetation services in the Marin, Sonoma and Napa areas and has supported PG&E with maintaining tree clearances in accordance with California law and [California Public Utility Commission] regulations.”

Is it possible that the brutal and drought-busting winter of 2016–17 had any impact on Davey’s tree-trimming activities this summer and fall? “Any impacts to the routine schedule were minimal as a result of the 2017 storms,” says Lennox, “and did not impact tree-trimming activities.”

As the fires raged, PG&E immediately emerged as the leading contender in the blame game, driven by deeply reported articles on the utility giant from the Los Angeles Times and the Bay Area News Group. The sum of the reporting is that high winds combined with inadequate, under-regulated PG&E infrastructure and a California Public Utilities Commission stacked with Gov. Jerry Brown appointees eager to bend to the will of the utility when it comes to costly fire-hazard regulations and designations, led to the fire.

If—as those leading California news organizations have been strongly implying for a month—PG&E is found liable in any way for the fires, what would that mean for its regional go-to tree trimmer? That remains to be seen, but for the time being, Lennox stresses that “Davey has received no claims to date, and we understand Cal Fire is investigating the origins and causes of the fires.” 

PG&E has pushed back against any claim of responsibility for the fires and, as has been widely reported, filed a motion in San Francisco Superior Court last week which claimed that third-party, private power lines were the culprit behind the Tubbs fire. The Tubbs inferno was the most destructive in the series of fires that broke out on Oct. 8 and killed 42.

In the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) report filed Oct. 13, the company noted that “since October 8, 2017, several catastrophic wildfires have started and remain active in Northern California. The causes of these fires are being investigated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), including the possible role of power lines and other facilities of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (the ‘Utility’), a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation. It currently is unknown whether the Utility would have any liability associated with these fires.”

The total of North Bay fire damage is estimated in the $5 billion to $6 billion range. It’s the most costly wildfire in state history. PG&E maintains about $800 million in liability insurance, according to an SEC report it filed in mid-October. That’s a potential $4.2 to $5.2 billion gap in its insurance protection against lawsuits.

“If the amount of insurance is insufficient to cover the Utility’s liability or if insurance is otherwise unavailable, PG&E Corporation’s and the Utility’s financial condition or results of operations could be materially affected,” the company notes in its SEC filing. Whether any of that potential liability bleeds down to Davey remains to be seen. In the meantime, Davey is halfway through its latest, four-year tree-services contract with PG&E, which was implemented in 2016 and runs through December 2019. Davey workers themselves have separate labor agreements throughout the state with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. Those agreements set the working conditions and wages for Davey workers, says J. V. Mancour, business representative for IBEW 1245 in Sonoma County.

“We try to get the best wages and working conditions for our working folks, and provide the best professional workforce,” Mancour says.

Beyond that, it’s up to Davey to deploy the workers at the bequest of PG&E. Lennox says the company is in negotiations over a new contract with IBEW 1245 which will “amend the terms effective January 1, 2018.”

The contracts don’t cover the number of hours the Davey crews work, or where the work is undertaken. That’s the purview of PG&E through its contract with Davey. “Unfortunately, we don’t control how much work they get,” says Mancour. “That’s done by the employer.”

PG&E did not respond to the Pacific Sun’s inquiries for comment by press time.

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