The work of an arborist can save lives. Proper utility line clearing keeps power lines suspended where they are supposed to be and prevents an array of safety problems. Perhaps no issue that is created by improper utility line clearing is more significant than wildfires.
Across the country, especially in western states with dryer climates like California, Texas, Colorado and Montana, wildfires have been devastating. Over 2 million acres burned in 2019 in the state of Alaska alone, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In California, meanwhile, more than 2 million properties are at risk of damage from wildfire.
Some of the most widespread and damaging wildfires in California have been caused by insufficient utility line clearance, specifically those handled by Pacific Gas and Electric. On March 23, 2020, the utility company filed for bankruptcy after pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter as a result of its role in inadvertently starting the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history. The fire was initially caused by faulty equipment and improper vegetation management. A report created by a court-appointed monitor found that Pacific Gas and Electric failed to properly prune or remove over three thousand trees that were their responsibility.
In light of the recent ruling against Pacific Gas and Electric, and its subsequent bankruptcy, there are several steps that utility line clearing arborists can take to prevent wildfires and other hazards. Doing so can help to keep workers and their communities safe. These steps include:
Trees that require pruning will need to be checked and re-pruned consistently to prevent risk. This is especially true in areas where utility line arborists were unable to obtain a large clearance area. In many cases, new guidelines are calling for larger minimum clearance areas in response to wildfire risk. California, for example, expanded theirs in 2017, from 1.5 feet to 4 feet.
The regularity with which a tree must be pruned depends on several factors, including the length of the cut, species and size of the tree and the area’s climate, according to the Utility Arborist Association.
A utility line clearing arborist must also determine the extent of pruning on each tree. While often informed by the amount of clearance allowed, this decision still involves determining the length and number of cuts that will be most effective. Typically, if larger cuts are possible, fewer will be used, while smaller cuts means more of them.
Especially in the dry climates that are most prone to wildfires, it is important to keep brush clear of lines. If a line does fall, even if it is not from the weight of brush, this material can allow a fire to spread rapidly. Arborists will typically view brush reduction as a part of a larger Integrated Vegetation Management strategy, or IVM. IVM involves ensuring smaller plants can grow by limiting taller plants, according to the EPA.
Brush work is most essential near high-voltage wires, as tree pruning may not be the proper technique in those areas.
While the easiest way to keep a utility line from falling may be to simply remove every tree in the vicinity, this is often neither desirable nor feasible. Utility line arborists want to work to maintain the health of nearby trees while keeping lines clear. This may limit the number and length of cuts that can be made.
Utility line arborists must find a balance between keeping power lines clear and safe, protecting the land and working within legal restrictions. Steps that companies can take to avoid total tree removal where it is not necessary include consistent pruning, brush clearing and removal of young vegetation, especially near high-voltage lines.
Ultimately, proper tree care and utility line clearing is essential to preventing wildfires. Mismanagement can have devastating effects, including lives lost, properties destroyed and thousands of acres burned, as in the case of Pacific Gas and Electric. To keep their communities safe while keeping trees healthy, arborists are using a variety of techniques and doing consistent checks. It’s important, rewarding work if done safely and correctly.