As California Wildfire Season Looms, Finding Tree Trimmers Is a New Problem

OAKHURST, California – Pacific Gas & Electric has a big problem. His equipment repeatedly comes into contact with dry trees and bushes and causes devastating forest fires. As a result, the company strives to prune or cut down hundreds of thousands of trees across its vast northern California territory.

But it has another problem: finding people to do this job.

Beyond the tight labor market, there is the challenge of attracting a certain type of workforce for the difficult and dangerous job. To cut trees well, especially the 200-foot forests in the Sierra Nevada forests, contractors need to be strong, agile, and able to handle fear and adrenaline rushes.

When all goes well, “it’s like Cirque du Soleil in the trees,” said Jose Mercado, founder of the Hispanic Arborist Association, who has professionally climbed trees near Los Angeles for more than two decades. “You are in the best physical condition of your life.”

If something goes wrong, the consequences can be fatal. As of 2017, the Department of Labor has tracked 127 tree-related deaths nationwide, including 20 in California. The most common causes of injury or death include knocks from branches, electric shocks, and falls.

PG&E and other utilities outsource tree work to a network of contractors. These companies, in turn, are casting a wide web to find skilled workers, with starting wages starting at $ 15 an hour.

Tyler Dudley, 32, has been pruning trees around power lines near Yosemite National Park for the past five years. He grew up in a nearby mountain town using chainsaws to cut firewood. Hence, it seemed natural to him to strap spikes to his boots and learn to climb when hundreds of jobs were opened to tear up trees that had been killed during the drought in recent years.

“If you can do your job, boom, it’s your turn to work,” said Mr. Dudley.

Because of the recent fires, it’s relatively easy for seasoned hands like him to find union jobs that pay up to $ 28 an hour, but the work is getting tougher.

“You want 12 feet, basically a ball around the power line,” said Mr. Dudley, referring to the required clearance between trees and utilities. “Now I have to go to the top of the tree and cut the branches.”

[Researchers are finding new ways to detect wildfires sooner and keep them from spreading.]

Mr. Dudley’s employer, ArborWorks, has grown from 100 at the end of 2016 to 550 employees, in part through the hiring of other contractors. Davey Tree, which supplies about 1,000 workers to PG&E and other utility companies, flies people from other states. Utility companies are also tapping into other types of contractors who have worked in disaster relief after hurricanes and tornadoes.

PG&E, California’s largest electricity company, recently announced to state regulators that it would take up to 100 million trees to inspect and cut or trim as needed by 2026. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January after taking on an estimated $ 30 billion in fire liabilities, plans to spend more than $ 700 million on them this year. It is said to have about 3,000 tree workers, though it could use more.

Last month it was said it was already behind in its 2019 goal of pruning and removing 375,000 trees with a “higher failure potential” due to limited manpower, bad weather and complications with permits.

PG&E advised government regulators that dangerous work on live power lines “cannot simply be done by someone with a chainsaw.” However, there are no central apprenticeships for arborists, as there are for electrical wiring work. Instead, contractors certify workers know how to cut branches from wires, conduct air rescue operations, and safely navigate live wires, which in California requires 18 months of training.

“PG&E was trying to find resources,” said Kevin Orsini, a PG&E attorney, at a January trial over the company’s security file. “I don’t mean money. I mean the people. “

With fire season looming, state regulators are evaluating fire plans submitted by PG&E and other utilities. They weigh up how much value businesses should place on pruning trees versus other changes, such as: B. better insulation of current-carrying lines or preventive shutdown of the power supply in the event of an increased risk of fire.

In April, the California Public Utilities Commission requested more information on whether the costs of PG & E’s plan might outweigh the benefits – for example, whether the plan would lead to too many healthy trees being felled – and how the commission is likely to succeed in the process Measure fire risk reduction.

The economy of tree pruning is at the center of these questions. Pay per tree is the industry norm, contractors say, although urgent work – like the cleanup in Paradise, the town destroyed in November by the campfire caused by a PG&E transmission line – sometimes costs time and materials are higher.

Contractors who pay utilities for every tree they cut or fell are “usually incentivized to get things done quickly,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director of the Safety and Enforcement Policy Commission.

“The utilities definitely know they need to rethink vegetation management and do it differently,” she added.

Meanwhile, hiring for PG & E’s efforts has resulted in other companies struggling to find workforce.

“Trying to deploy resources quickly can be difficult because most of the resources are devoted to PG&E,” said Don Akau, vegetation program manager at another California utility, San Diego Gas & Electric.

Mr. Akau said his utility company’s tree workforce of around 200 has remained constant over the past few years, but he plans to hire six to twelve tree crews this year.

Family-run tree companies that help residents want their homes fireproof say they can’t compete with some PG&E contractors who offer signing premiums and are willing to pay workers in cash.

Heat wave hits North America

With suffocating heat hitting much of western North America, experts are concerned about human safety and power outages.

    • Western Canada: Canada broke a national heat record on June 27 when the temperature in a small town in British Columbia reached nearly 116 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking an 84-year-old record by nearly 3 degrees, with dangerously hot weather expected to continue for a few more days.
    • Pacific Northwest USA: A heat dome has enveloped the region, which has brought temperatures to extreme levels – with temperatures well above 100 degrees – and created dangerous conditions in a part of the country that is not used to oppressive summer weather or air conditioning.
    • Heavy dry season: Much of the western half of the United States is suffering from severe drought of historic proportions. Conditions are particularly bad in California and the Southwest, but the drought extends into the Pacific Northwest, much of the Intermountain West, and even the Northern Plains. The extreme heat exacerbates the drought.
    • Growing energy shortage: Power outages have increased more than 60 percent since 2015, even though climate change made heat waves worse, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
    • The base temperatures rise: New baseline data for temperature, rain, snow, and other weather events show how the climate has changed in the United States. One key takeaway: the country is getting hotter.

“We’ve had a solid crew for a long time,” said Tim Murphy, who runs Tim the Tree Man in Nevada City, California, near the Tahoe National Forest. “PG&E took them with them.”

At 62, Mr. Murphy has been climbing trees himself since two of his three climbers left last fall. “I’m just one step away from being out of business,” he said.

Some companies are turning to automation.

At Oakhurst, at the foot of the Sierra, one last afternoon, a dying tree near a PG&E power line was felled by an industrial version of the mechanical claw in games where players fish stuffed animals out of glass tanks.

The machine, a telescopic grapple saw, grabs trees with 3,200 pounds of pressure, cuts them, and then drops the wood to the ground.

“It’s like a big Tonka toy,” said Cainan Watchorn, an ArborWorks climber with tattoos around both biceps.

Mr. Watchorn’s bosses have assured him that the machine will only complement his work. He is skeptical, but agrees that it could reduce the need for humans to climb the most dangerous trees.

“I’m 25 and I feel like 35,” said Mr. Watchorn, who cuts trees for homeowners over the weekend to generate extra income. “The toll is physical stress, but it’s more psychological stress.”

But automation is only just beginning to gain a foothold. And the robots are not always popular – especially with experienced tree climbers. Mr. Watchorn’s boss Paul Nichelmann, a third generation lumberjack who lived near remote construction sites for years, said people still have to do the work in areas that are only accessible by foot.

Mr Nichelmann, 53, said crews like his were working ASAP. All it takes is a glance at the grass on the surrounding hills, which is turning from evergreen to brittle gold, and everything looks like kindling.

“If we don’t do the work, Mother Nature will,” he said. “And it’s pretty random.”

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