PG&E Debris Removal Program: Cleaning up Victims' Properties or PG&E's Image?

Butte Fire victims are just now getting a letter from PG&E offering to clean up some of the woody debris left from the fire.  Sounds good, but is it really?  Here are some of the concerns: 

  • No details.  We’ve been asking PG&E since October to let us see the forms they want the residents to sign before getting the work done.  It still hasn’t shown us.  All we've seen is a “Notice of Work” form.  What’s the big secret?  Why can’t the victims’ attorneys see the documents PG&E wants the victims to sign?
  • Impossibly short opt-in deadline.  Property owners must opt-in by December 31.  That's too short a time frame for owners to obtain advice on what to do.  After all this time, if the offer is legit, what's the rush?
  • Ulterior Motive?  PG&E's form asks the owner to initial and agree to PG&E’s inventory of the number of the trees they remove, as well as the trees' size.  Why? Is PG&E trying to get victims to agree with their count of the dead trees, to use later against the property owners in lawsuits?
  • Double talk.  PG&E’s brochure states that a tree qualifies for removal if, for example, the tree "is reasonably accessible by equipment/machinery".  Does that mean  it will remove all tree debris of any size that is "reasonably accessible by equipment/machinery"? "Reasonable" to whom? And accessible to what type of equipment or machinery?
  • PG&E keeps the value:  PG&E wants to take the trees, but not pay for them.  Rather, PG&E says that the wood it will haul away is to be considered "donated."  PG&E is a billion dollar corporation.  Why does it need the fire victims to donate to it?

While PG&E's public relations team may be trying to boost its good will among the residents of Calveras and Butte County, it may also be trying to limit what it will have to pay property owners going forward.

 

PG&E Debris Removal letter

PG&E's Updated Tree Cutting Schedule

On November 25, PG&E announced further tree cutting work.  From November 28-December 12, PG&E will send ACRT, Inc.to pre-inspect and repatrol these areas.

Mokelumne Hill:

Jesus Maria Rd
Ponderosa Way
Worden Rd
Hwy 26

Mountain Ranch:
Whiskey Slide

East Murray Creek

Avenue A
Mountain Ranch Rd
Railroad Flat Rd

Sheep Ranch:

Railroad Flat Rd

PG&E's tree cutting schedule from November 28- December 12 will include these areas.

Mokelumne Hill:

Jesus Maria Rd
Baker Riley Rd
Old Gambetta Rd
Doster Rd
East Murray Creek
Old Greek Mine Rd
Buttondown Lane
Rainbow Rd
Upper Dorray Rd.
Lower Dorray Rd
Electra Rd
Flat Gulch Rd
Lower Gulch Rd
Diamond Lane
Old Gambetta Trl
Ponderosa Wy
Hwy 26
Sierra Oaks Lane

Mountain Ranch:

RailRoad Flat Rd
El Dorado Trl
Sierra Vista Way
West murray Creek
East Murray Cree
Whiskey Slide
Green Ranch Rd
Pine Ridge Rd
Struckman Rd
Emigrant Ct
Avenue A
3 Mile Ln
Rodesino Rd
Carabaldi St
Washington St
Old Emigrant Trail W
Hwy 26
Cedar Way
Spring Lake Rd
Cilenti Ranch Rd
Loma Serena Rd
Swiss Ranch Rd
Worden Rd
Francine Ct
44 Ranch Rd
Ponderosa Wy
Storey Rd
Wendell Rd
Hidden Valley Rd
Sheep Ranch Rd

Sheep Ranch:

Eagleview Dr
Cave City Rd
Sun Rd
Ham Luddy Rd
Skyview Ct
Lakeside Dr
Sugar Pine Rd
Eagleview Dr
Live Oak Lane
Oakridge Rd
Calaveras Rd 

Railroad Flat Rd
Hidden Valley Rd
Sheep Ranch Rd

Compensating Owners for the Value of Trees Lost in the Butte Fire

The Butte Fire burned properties at elevations from about 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The trees growing in those elevations of the Sierra Nevada foothills include Interior Live Oaks, Blue Oaks, Black Oaks, Douglas Fir, Sierra Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, and others.

Most people value the beauty trees bring to their area. An owner of a home in the foothills prefers a view of forested hillsides to a view of barren, burned hillsides. But putting a value on the loss of the trees can be difficult.

Three different methods are typically used for valuing a tree:

  1. the decrease the loss of the tree causes to the real estate's market value,
  2. the CTLA formula method, and
  3. the tree’s replacement cost.

If someone else caused the loss of the trees on your property, they will likely argue for the first method, particularly in rural areas. This approach minimizes the amount they would pay because most of the value of rural real estate is in the structures and land, not the trees.

But the law generally requires a person responsible for a tree's destruction to pay the cost of replacing the tree with one of same kind and size.  The replacement cost of a mature trees will likely be much higher than the decrease the loss of the tree causes to the home's market value.

For example, consider a home with three bedrooms located on 40 forested acres valued at $400,000. If a fire burns all of the trees but spares the home, the property's market value will certainly drop.  But a large portion of the value may remain in the house and the land. Imagine the property is now valued at only $300,000 because of the destroyed trees. The person who caused the fire may offer to pay the homeowner $100,000, the reduced value of the real estate.

The law, however, says that the one who caused the fire is responsible for restoring the homeowner’s property to the condition it was in before the fire. That means the homeowner is entitled to be paid the cost of replacing the trees destroyed. Replacement in this instance does not mean with new saplings but with trees of a similar size as what were destroyed.

What does it cost to replace mature trees? It depends on the size of the tree, the type of tree, and the difficulty in transplanting the tree. A 50 foot oak tree will cost more to replace than a 10 foot pine. Determining the type and size of the trees is essential in calculating the replacement costs.  But in almost all cases, the cost of replacing the trees will be more than the decrease in the home's market value as a result of the tree's destruction.

Will the Tree Survive the Fire Damage?

Some trees can survive a wildfire and even thrive. But many trees can be severely damaged or killed by wildfire. For property owners, it can be difficult to tell if trees have been killed by a fire or merely singed. The length of exposure and the intensity of the fire are big factors in the amount of damageCambium done to a tree during a fire. Additionally, the more stressed the tree was before the fire, whether from drought, disease, or insects, the more susceptible a tree is during a wildfire.

As a wildfire burns, a tree can be damaged in several ways.  The injury can vary from leaves or needles being burned off to root damage. For trees, any fire damage that impacts its ability to pull moisture from the soil is going to cause more severe damage or death.

If 50% or more of the bark has been completely burned off around the circumference of the trunk, then the tree has likely been killed. Some trees with extermely thick bark, like sequoias, may be able to survive even when more than 50% of the bark has been burned.

If a tree has been burned but a substantial portion of its bark remains, then you can check to determine whether the tree is still alive by cutting a small hole about the size of quarter through the bark. If there is a white or green moist cambial layer just beneath the bark, then the tree has a good chance of surviving. However, if the fire burned into part of the trunk, then the tree will likely be unstable and a hazard even if it does survive.

Evergreen trees that have less than 10% green needles or with less than 50% live buds remaining will likely not survive. Non-evergreens may survive even if most of the leaves have been burned off.

Even if a tree does survive the immediate fire, the damage it has suffered will make it more vulnerable to suffer attack from bark beetles and other insects that could ultimately kill it. 

Compensation for Trees Destroyed by Fire

The law recognizes that trees on private property have special value.  So when a tree is destroyed due to the wrongful act of another, the wrongdoer cannot get away with simply paying the property owner for"Quercus Agrifolia" by PeterOMalley - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quercus_Agrifolia.jpg#/media/File:Quercus_Agrifolia.jpg what the tree might have sold for as timber.  Rather, at least in some circumstances, the wrongdoer must pay for the costs of replacing the tree with another of the same size.  In fact, depending on the case, the wrongdoer may be required to pay the property owner three times the tree's value.   

The law has been interpreted differently by the courts.  Some courts will apply the law only when the trees have been wrongfully cut down.  Other courts apply the law to trees destroyed as a result of fires.  Still other courts require the wrongdoer to pay not just a multiple of the tree's replacement cost, but to pay for the replacement tree’s installation and aftercare as well.