Some wildfire safety work on vegetation in Mill Valley has been paused while the city and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. address community concerns about the scope of the project.
The utility’s “enhanced vegetation management” program, which evaluates clearances between trees and power lines, kicked off in the county earlier this year. The effort is intended to reduce the risk of outages and wildfires caused by trees contacting PG&E equipment. The project does not require municipal approval.
Deanna Contreras, a spokesperson for PG&E, said this week that work has begun in Woodacre, Nicasio, Fairfax and Mill Valley to identify trees for trimming or removal. But the preparatory marking of trees tentatively set for removal or trimming has triggered concern in Mill Valley, which boasts scenic redwood groves.
Contreras said PG&E had tentatively identified 225 trees that require trimming and 227 trees that require removal from Old Mill Park, Cascade Park and Three Wells Park in Mill Valley.
Mayor Jim Wickham said community members are concerned about the potential loss of certain redwood trees considered meaningful to the area’s character and history.
“We’re balancing needs for public safety and with what redwood trees are involved,” Wickham said. “As a city, we’re basically supporting our community and making sure there’s transparency in the process.”
Wickham noted that redwoods are a “component of the makeup of Mill Valley.”
“That’s what makes Mill Valley special,” he said.
Contreras said there are 31 miles of overhead power lines that run through high fire risk areas within the county. Colored classifications designate whether the tree trimming is part of the “enhanced vegetation management” project, or routine maintenance, which is happening concurrently. The project is set to run through the end of the year.
Contreras said the tree die-off in the area –– often due to drought, infestation or disease –– is “unprecedented.” Dying trees are more susceptible to burning and unexpected falls, and are a potential fire and public safety hazard.
“PG&E is in Marin County helping to ensure that customers have safe and reliable electric service by pruning and improving trees that would impact overhead power lines,” she said.
City Manager Todd Cusimano a meeting was held with PG&E officials Thursday to confirm which trees are slated for removal. He said the meeting yielded a collaborative process with Southern Marin Fire Protection District officials, city parks officials and the city administration to assuage public concerns about a lack of transparency regarding the project.
“It has to be done right and it has to be done with the right public engagement,” he said.
Cusimano said the city hopes PG&E will prioritize higher elevation locations and provide a comprehensive map of the planned project following the public outreach.
Contreras said work in the area of Old Mill Park, which includes a notably verdant redwood grove, was paused “pending a more robust customer outreach plan.” PG&E also committed to further engagement with fire officials about priority areas, she added. More meetings are expected.
“This includes the environmental reviews that PG&E would normally initiate when conducting vegetation work,” she said. “Regular compliance work, otherwise called routine work, will continue throughout Mill Valley.”
As of June, PG&E had completed more than 7,000 miles of “enhanced vegetation management” statewide. The utility plans to add at least 1,800 miles by the end of the year.
“The speed at which we’re seeing tree die-off is unprecedented. Whether it be due to growing up and working in the North Bay, I know how important trees are to these communities, whether in a forested or urban area,” said Ron Richardson, a regional vice president. “We feel the same way. Our team of qualified professionals carefully assess trees that could pose a risk and work closely with customers as we keep our communities safe by reducing the risk of wildfire.”