PG&E slow to remove trees it deemed dangerous in Calistoga, homeowner says

CALISTOGA, Calif. (KGO) -- After last month's blackouts and wildfires, PG&E has been facing questions about how it maintains its power lines. On Friday night, a case study from the Napa Valley. A homeowner tells the I-Team, the company identified serious danger in wires near his home more than a year ago, but has not fixed it as promised.

Imagine going to bed at night, not knowing if a massive tree is going to fall on your house, or if it will hit power lines and spark another deadly fire.

Brian Durnian lives a half-mile away from where the Tubbs Fire started in 2017. High winds blew the flames away from his house and into Santa Rosa, killing more than 20 people and destroying thousands of homes.

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Since then, Durnian tells me he has spent six figures creating a defensible space around his Calistoga home, removing dozens of trees, trimming others, installing a generator so his well water keeps flowing if firefighters need it.

But across his property line, power lines could be seen drooping through thick vegetation with tall trees just feet away.

Dan Noyes: "This is a clear and present danger, isn't it?"

Brian Durnian: "Yeah, it definitely is."

The neighbors say this same power line sparked a brush fire six years ago, after a branch fell on it.

After the Tubbs Fire, Durnian asked PG&E for help. He gave me his emails and text messages with PG&E and its tree service subcontractor, the Davey Resource Group. On two occasions, workers marked problem trees for removal, but never cut them down. The yellow bands are still there.

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Brian Durnian: "They walked the property line, they marked the trees with yellow tape and said, 'We will get on this. It's obviously a danger and we'll get the trees taken out.'"

Dan Noyes: "And that was when?"

Brian Durnian: "That was a year ago."

Dan Noyes: "A year ago?"

Brian Durnian: "Right."

Fast forward to last month, PG&E cut power to Calistoga and the city issued an evacuation advisory because of the high winds and high fire danger. Durnian was already in Mexico on a planned vacation. He returned to find that a branch tore through his roof and a 140-foot tree toppled -- one of those previously marked for removal.

Durnian told the I-Team, "Coming home from Mexico and seeing that, my house, seeing this and then seeing that, I was like why don't I stay in my house in Mexico, why am I even here?"

This is a massive tree and it really was a stroke of luck that it fell this way. If it had gone towards the power lines, it very well could have led to another devastating wildfire.

When I asked Davey Resouce Group why they hadn't cut the trees slated for removal, they just referred me to PG&E where spokeswoman Deanna Contreras emailed me:

"PG&E does not currently have trees marked for removal on the address in which you inquired."

Dan Noyes questioned PG&E President and CEO Bill Johnson last week, "How can we get this done now?"

Noyes asked Johnson about speeding up its vegetation management program and making improvements to the power grid. Johnson said his workers inspected all 25,000 miles of power lines in high fire threat areas over the past year. That should have included Brian Durnian's house.

"We looked at everything," said Johnson. "We fixed everything on a priority basis that needed fixing. We have a very aggressive vegetation management well beyond regulatory requirements."

Dan Noyes: "What message would you have for Bill Johnson?"

Brian Durnian: "I'd like to see him come up here and look at the site and tell me that this is not high priority. For all those years that we've been paying through our PG&E bills for the added tree trimming, obviously that was not done."

Late Friday, PG&E sent an updated statement claiming that the trees near Brian Durnian's house are in compliance with fire safety standards that require four feet of clearance from power lines.

Dan Noyes says he saw with his own eyes that the branches and other vegetation are much closer than that. PG&E also says those marked trees do not pose an immediate safety threat, and they are scheduled to be removed next year.

Here is the complete statement from PG&E:

"PG&E completed 2019 compliance work and/or compliance inspections in August on trees located at the two addresses in Calistoga that you asked about (3___ and 3___ Highway 128). Trees at both locations are in compliance with state vegetation and fire safety standards, which require clearances of 4 feet around power lines in high fire-threat areas, with recommended minimum clearances of 12 feet or more at the time of pruning to ensure compliance year-round.

There are additional trees, located at 3___ Highway 128, that were marked by PG&E to be removed or pruned as part of our Enhanced Vegetation Management program. Our enhanced vegetation management work involves meeting and exceeding state vegetation and fire safety standards in high fire-threat areas across our service territory by pruning overhanging branches and limbs directly above and around power lines. Because they were not deemed to pose an immediate safety threat to our lines or facilities, they are scheduled to be pruned or removed next year. Currently, PG&E has 6,000 vegetation-management resources working on enhanced vegetation management projects in high fire-threat areas.

PG&E vegetation-management personnel confirmed that they did find an oak tree that fell onto the property at 3___. It was located well outside of PG&E's easement and it did not pose a threat to PG&E facilities, so was not marked by PG&E."


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