by Allen Martin and Jennifer Mistrot
SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — Fall can be a deadly time of year in Northern California. It’s a time when wildfires have raged through hillsides and into cities like Santa Rosa and towns like Paradise.
After Pacific Gas and Electric equipment was found to have started many of those fires, the utility now finds itself under pressure to make its power lines safer. So for now, residents like Richard Bargioni are frequently waking up to the sounds of chain saws and wood chippers, as union tree trimmers diligently work to clear trees from neighborhood power lines.
Bargioni was born and raised in Fairfax, and he currently lives across the street from a house his uncle built. The longtime Marin County dweller says he has seen things change dramatically on the tiny, leafy block he’s called home for decades.
“Density of population, a lot more cars, the streets are narrower,” observed Bargioni as he glanced down his street. “It’s built up a lot more. More houses, like for instance when I was a little kid and grew up across the street, virtually nobody lived full time up the hill in hillside.”
But on this late summer’s day, Bargioni isn’t thinking about the past. He says he and other residents are worried about fire danger. The recent Crest Fire that burned near Bargioni’ s neighborhood has him on edge. Even though it started as a house fire, it quickly spread into nearby dry brush and trees.
So Bargioni was intently watching the tree in front of his old house get trimmed, away from the power lines that have created a spider web pattern throughout the neighborhood’s forested, narrow streets.
Hard at work was Yuni Valencia and his Central Valley-based crew. These IBEW-represented workers will stay in hotels for months at a time because their employer, Arbor Works, is just one of the companies contracted by PG&E to clear trees away from some of the most dangerous areas of the state.
Arbor Works has added multiple union employees like Valencia to keep up with the utility’s tree-trimming demands. PG&E has said it is targeting 375,000 trees for maintenance by the end of the year, at a cost of almost $2.5 billion. As part of that effort, Valencia predicts he and his and his crew could be working in the North Bay for the rest of the year.
“The maintenance needs to be stepped up and I feel like it’s being addressed now, you know,” explained Valencia. “Since I have been up here I have actually been called to a couple of emergency jobs. Where PG&E is, like, ‘Hey, we need to address this right away. Can you have a crew there? And have this done today?'”
Valencia told KPIX 5 that some neighbors are concerned about the amount of branches removed by crews, so he has tried to explain the dangers to hesitant homeowners by telling them about his own personal work experience in Butte County after fire wiped out the town of Paradise.
“It was a sad situation. I mean you hate to see something like that,” recalled Valencia. “I want things to be safe for the public and for everybody. I mean I have seen firsthand how bad things can get when they are not addressed.”
Bargioni shares Valencia’s concerns. He says he saw just how scary a fast moving fire can be when the Crest Fire started just above his house. Bargioni was quick to point out how easily the fire could have trapped him and his neighbors in their own homes.
“They had I think 16 fire trucks up there … they completely blocked the road,” recalled Bargioni. “Nobody [could] get in or out, not even the fire company.”
At a hearing in mid-September, the federal judge monitoring PG&E’s tree-trimming progress ordered the utility to notify his court, in writing, any time the utility believes its equipment is responsible for starting a fire that grows to 10 acres or more. Another hearing will be scheduled at the end of fire season.
KPIX 5 requested a statement from PG&E about its tree-trimming plan and a company spokesperson provided a written response, which said in part: “We are working safely and as quickly as possible to complete this safety work, prioritizing those communities that are at the most extreme risk of wildfire. This equates to roughly 25,200 miles of distribution like from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.”