Report: PG&E to end wildfire prevention tree-trimming program

The utility is facing criticism from its top regulator for paring back wildfire prevention efforts, while the company argues the program was ineffective at reducing risk in the first place.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the California utility company, has scrapped its ambitious tree-trimming program that was aimed at preventing wildfires.

The company spent $2.5 billion on the program in recent years, which included cutting or clearing more than a million trees growing near power lines.


The backstory: PG&E’s program was launched in 2019 and was seen as a crucial way to prevent wildfires that have been plaguing California for years, many of which have been started because of equipment failures and power lines being knocked over.

  • The electric company was committed to trimming trees and shrubs every 3 to 4 years, clearing branches within 12 feet of high-voltage power lines, and pruning branches that could fall on power lines.
  • The program was designed to prevent a repeat of the 2018 Camp Fire, which was blamed on a PG&E transmission line that sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history, killing 85 people and destroying the town of Paradise.
  • An internal analysis obtained by the Wall Street Journal deemed the sweeping program as says ineffective to reducing wildfire risk, and that a targeted approach would be better.
  • PG&E claims that the move was motivated by a need to reduce the amount of excess materials that need to be recycled as well as to reduce the impact on communities and the environment. Critics claim the company is simply trying to cut costs.

What they’re saying: A former member of the California Public Utilities Commission, Loretta Lynch, voiced concern that the decision to halt the tree-trimming program would increase the threat of wildfires. “This is a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.

  • In response to criticism of the decision, PG&E says that it still plans to conduct tree trimming on a smaller scale and will prune trees that could fall on power lines.
  • Opponents point out that the move is a short-sighted one given that California is still facing increasing wildfire threats due to climate change and droughts. Reining in all wildfire-fighting tools and measures at their disposal, they argue, can only hamper the effort to prevent a new disaster.
  • In its own statement to The Sun, PG&E noted that it remains committed to a variety of vegetation management efforts, which also include tree removal.
  • “Every day, PG&E is making the electric system safer and stronger for our customers. Using advanced technologies and rebuilding the electric system from the underground up, we are preventing wildfires, improving reliability and reducing costs over the long term,” the company said. “PG&E has increased our investment in wildfire mitigation efforts by $2 billion over the last five years (from $3.8B to $5.5B). We develop and implement our wildfire mitigation programs based on the best information and data that we have at the time, and our capabilities have continued to evolve and mature since 2019.”
  • “To be clear, the essential work of our trained PG&E arborists and our contract vegetation-management crews to keep trees away from powerlines will continue. Every day, we have more than 5,500 employees and contractors on the job throughout our Northern and Central California service area doing the work to keep trees and limbs from coming in contact with our powerlines.”
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