Wildfire Response

Huge logs cut from trees damaged beyond repair await removal at the job site. Trees in the Paradise, Calif., area can reach heights of 120 to 150 feet.

January 25, 2019

You couldn’t page through a newspaper or watch television without catching a glimpse of it. Northern California’s forests were on fire last fall due to a mix of dry weather and intense winds – and the outlook was grim.

As the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, these forces of nature damaged almost everything in their path, including the electric system and surrounding landscape. Entire neighborhoods are decimated, spotted with only a few remaining homes. Forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, redwood and cedar trees are still standing; however, their trunks are charred or burnt.

Paradise, Calif., as it exists today, is anything but. The city is in rehabilitation mode.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) needed a lot of help assessing tree damage and reestablishing rights of way across the city and in the neighboring areas of Centerville and Magalia – a critical step in helping restore electricity and maintain safety for customers.

FirstEnergy’s Forestry group answered the call to assist by sending six employees to California, including Distribution Vegetation Management Manager Marvin Mantos; Toledo Edison Forestry Services Manager Tyler Woody; Penelec Forestry Specialist Les Wilber; Potomac Edison Forestry Specialist DavidG illen; and Potomac Edison Associate Forestry technicians Dale Hetrick and Nathan Uhrich.

The FirstEnergy Forestry team gathers for a briefing around one of affected trees.

The FirstEnergy Forestry team gathers for a briefing around one of affected trees.

“Mutual assistance programs for forestry are relatively new,” said Marvin. “They’ve only been around a few years. Most recently, FirstEnergy crews have assisted with storm-related forestry work in Florida and on the east coast. Going to California is one of the farthest places that FirstEnergy employees have traveled to provide mutual assistance.”

The assignment was an eye-opening experience for the team.

“Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of this trip was the work environment,” Nathan shared. “It was heartwrenching to be around the aftermath of this disaster and to see so much devastation.”

Marvin added: “The whole area was closed off to the public. People who still had standing homes could stay but had to remain inside for safety reasons. It was hard to see so many people’s lives upended. Anything that wasn’t made of metal or stone pretty much burned.”

After attending training sessions on safety practices and a vegetation orientation, the team got right to work.

“Our job was to assess the wildfire’s impact on trees outside the rights of way,” explained Tyler. “The work was similar in scope to a complete rebuild or a new construction zone. Little time was spent removing trees or limbs from conductors, since PG&E’s system was so badly burned only wire and hardware remained in most cases.”

Utility poles had completely burned to the ground and entire circuits needed to be rebuilt. The team spent 14 days on the job, evaluating tree health and marking hazardous trees for removal.

“We assessed how much crown length on each tree had been scorched or killed,” said Les. “The bark was really thick, so a lot of these trees could withstand fire well. Some were badly burned, and it was easier to know they would not return to proper condition. With other trees, we checked the moisture of the inner cambium wall to determine if they could rebound.”

The FirstEnergy team documented this information in PG&E’s GIS app, which also helped guide them along some challenging terrain.

“The hardest part for us was watching where we walked,” said Marvin. “With burned down homes, you have debris on the ground, such as nails or sharp metal. Some of the tree root systems had also burned, creating hazardous little caverns you could easily sink into. We had to be very careful about where we stepped.”

Les, who assessed a line that required walking up and out of a particularly steep canyon, said, “The terrain was like something out of a movie. I cringed when I first saw the steepness of the path, but I got used to it. And the mountains provided some amazing views.”

When the two weeks concluded, the team was pleased with their work – and so was PG&E.

“They recognized the expertise and quality work our team provided and wanted us to stay longer than originally planned,” said Marvin. “Though we had to return home, being able to help PG&E and their customers was a very rewarding experience. Everyone took something meaningful away from it, personally and professionally.”

One lucky building stands unscathed in the background of an area where utility poles and electric wire sustained significant damage.

Watching where they stepped was paramount for the team. Cavernous holes in the ground like this one, a byproduct of incinerated tree root systems, were prevalent and presented a safety risk.