One more sorry event in California’s fire calamities is the insane reaction of PG&E to the changing climate. It’s almost as if the punishments they’ve had to endure this century - a long list of felonies, criminal convictions, endless litigation, San Bruno explosion, bankruptcies - has driven them to madness. I got my first shock of this last April, driving by Redwood Acres, in Eureka, where, without any permit, they’d sawed down a stately grove of giant redwoods. It was the act of a marauder, a defacer, right in the public eye, almost vengeful, executed, preposterously, as making “defensible space” around its substation (!). By no stretch of the imagination were these trees a fire hazard. Indeed, as well as being active fire fighters, through their critical role in carbon sequestration, these trees were an elegant reminder of Eureka’s noble antecedent as a mighty forest, of which only fragments remain.
This fall, PG&E has has taken to Humboldt County’s roads and forests in a similar mood. KMUD news documented their demented rampage last week, when they visited a protest staged in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. As you listen to the KMUD interviews, you can hear trees crashing in the background. The protesters fume as they watch this slaughter of large, healthy beautiful carbon-sequestering, oxygen-manufacturing and water-retaining engines. They are agitated by the destruction of a critical wildlife corridor, connecting the Park with Rainbow Ridge and the wild, foggy refugia of the Mattole North Forks. A tree sitter who has been sleeping in an old growth douglas fir to protect it, described the red tree voles, a listed species, also a favorite food of the endangered Northern Spotted Owls, living around her perch.
There has been no permit, no environmental impact statement. All done, absurdly, in the name of fire safety.
The rampage is occurring all over the County. Last week trucks full of arborists, tree markers and traffic directors invaded the Lost Coast. We counted 43 trucks, just on the tiny road from Highway 101 to Petrolia. On Lighthouse Road, leading to the beach, they have painted yellow Xes on the trees they will cut, and a dot on the ones they will top or trim.
This is a tree-lined road. It passes the old growth Mill Creek Forest, saved in the eighties from Eel River Saw Mills by community action and fund-raising, now managed by BLM.
Large bay trees have Xes, as do broad-domed maples, under which generations of schoolchildren have passed, as they call out to the bus driver to watch out for squirrels.
PG&E cuts wherever it likes, whatever it likes, even in a State Park, as “enhanced vegetation management.” They can cut down trees before which which women in the early 20th century lay down in their long skirts and bonnets to protect from caterpillar tractors. As one protester at the Park remarked “It makes you question, is anything ever really saved?”
There are regulations which determine how far from the power lines PG&E is permitted to cut. One amiable and apologetic arborist said they could go 90 feet if there were a dead tree or other hazard which warranted cutting. According to PRC 4292, clearance is dependent on voltage. Ten-foot minimum clearance is required for high voltages: 110,000 volts or above.
But these are extremely low voltage wires along little country roads, and you can see Xes on large trees 50 feet or so upslope.
PG&E is a rogue corporation. The malfeasance dates back to the ‘80s, with the revelations of Erin Brockovitch and the hexavalent chromium spill in Hinckley. Here is a partial list:
+ 1994: the Traumer fire, where PG&E was found guilty of 739 counts of criminal negligence.
+ Also 1994: criminal convictions on the Campbell fire, in Tehama County, and the Nevada County fire.
+ Pendola Fire, 1999, heavy fines for poor vegetation management.
+ 2008 Rancho Cordova pipe explosion which killed one person and severely burned another.
+ 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion which killed 8 people and wounded 54. PG&E was convicted of 3,798 violations of state and federal laws. The lengthy proceedings revealed corporate documents listing profit as PG & E’s top priority, with safety coming in 5th. PG&E was given 5 years of probation and 200,000 hours of community service.
+ Butte Fire of 2016, which killed 2 people.
+ Camp Fire of 2016 which caused almost 100 deaths. The financial repercussions impelled PG&E to declare bankruptcy for the second time this century.
+ 2021 Dixie Fire, which burned over a million acres, due to PG&E equipment malfunction, and the Zogg Fire, which caused 1 death.
If any individual had been convicted of as many felony arsons, manslaughters and criminal negligences as this corporation, they would be in prison for life. Instead, it is permitted, indeed, subsidized, to execute stupefyingly expensive, impossible and counterproductive projects like this savage trimming over their 18,000 miles of power lines, in order to reduce the risk of another lawsuit.
But it is “too big to fail,” as they say. Sixteen million people, and the economy of a large part of the Pacific northwest, depend on it. Of course, it could not survive without successful lobbying at all levels (in 2018 alone it spent $10 million), including bribery and campaign contributions. However, the concept that one corporation can have such vast responsibilities, and also be guaranteed a profit for a stable of wealthy stockholders, is suicidal. Electricity is the economy’s life blood. PG&E cuts cost as it pleases, turns the power on and off as it pleases, and outsources the costs as its responsibilities to stockholders dictates.
Earth First!, some of whose members were at the Park protest, is dismissed by mainstream media, as a radical fringe organization. Nothing could be further from the truth. Earth First! together with other conservatives (in the true, original sense of that word) merely takes direct nonviolent action when nothing else has worked. With the climate catastrophe, nothing else has worked. Since its origins, EF! has taken a long view, like many of the rest of us, and what it foresaw and feared decades ago has truly come to pass. Drought. Climate catastrophe. Disappearance of millions of species, which had been the joy and beauty of our lives only a couple of decades ago.
Direct action is just a finger in a dike pounded by giant waves of economic power, and crested, as it were, by a class of people who, at least so far, though aware of the risk, have been able to personally benefit from the destructive forces of these waves. Their long view contains a vision of their own individual salvation. They think they are going to get away with it, whether out into space, or nested in a New Zealand enclave, or a climate-controlled dome somewhere. The media, ably controlled by this class, which for years ignored evidence of the consequences of this profit-seeking assault on life, is now full of terrifying fire and flood narratives. Communities are demoralized, through fear of fire, or punitive hardships which corporations like PG&E can impose. They are afraid to interfere with these destructive corporate activities.
The power lines should be underground, as are most utility wires in Europe. PG&E may say it’s too expensive, but in this dismissal you hear the stockholders’ voices again. The real problem is the climate, which has changed. It is hotter. High winds caused by monster fires can hurl trees and flaming materials for long distances. We cannot fix a problem we as humans have created, with an expedient that only makes it worse. What we need to address, and quickly, is the climate crisis. By trimming trees, PG&E is treating its insurance risks, not the real problem.
(Ellen Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)