Dead Tree Removal Project to Make Mountain Roads Safer

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved Phase 1 of the Tulare County Tree Mortality Task Force Tree Removal Project at its August 9 meeting. The project will help protect county residents and visitors from the danger of dead trees falling on the roads that serve to evacuate people in times of wildfire.

There are 8.1 million dead or dying trees in Tulare County, based on estimates from last month. That number is by far the highest for any county in the state, and has likely increased significantly in recent weeks.

A major infestation of bark beetles is killing the trees, which, as a result of the drought, are unable to produce the levels of sap required to repel the beetles. The millions of dead trees in the county threaten power lines and mountain roads, and are a potential source of fuel for fires.

Phase 1 seeks to remove dead trees 15 feet on either side of portions of Balch Park Road and Bear Creek Road. This phase is only the beginning of a larger project – a much larger project.

“We’ve done a survey,” said Eric Coyne, deputy Tulare County CAO. “We know there are 13,000 trees in this area. We hope to knock this out in three to four weeks.”

“The danger of trees falling on roads is way beyond 15 feet,” said Supervisor Steven Worthley, noting that other counties have removed dead trees 100 feet from either side of their roads. “This is a beginning and there’s a lot more to be done.”

“We’re targeting the most dangerous areas of these trees,” said Coyne. “Inmate crews and state labor will cut and chip the trees. The logs are going to be chopped and spread for erosion control on the sides of the roads.”

The proposal included a cost estimate of “at least $50,000” to cover Phase 1. It was unclear how much the county will be reimbursed for this phase, or more importantly for the future, more expensive phases.

“We are positioned to receive up to 75% of our costs, reimbursed by the state of California,” said Worthley, suggesting that Tulare County should hire a “dead tree czar” to oversee the project. “This would be a reimbursable expense. We should look at hiring somebody to do this because it can become a very very big issue.”

“I would tend to lean to hiring someone on staff who can do more of this,” agreed Supervisor Phil Cox.

Worthley suggested that since utilities and Caltrans are working in the area to respectively protect their power lines and roads, the county might save money by using the crews and equipment that is already in place.

All four supervisors in attendance were supportive of the tree removal project.

“In general, we look at it as a public safety issue,” said Supervisor Pete Vander Poel. “We have a lot of tourism and a lot of individuals who go to Balch Park.”

“With this being summer, there are probably 2,500 campers out there now,” said Coyne. “If those roads become blocked, those people are at real risk.”

There is also a risk to those who remove the trees.

“These trees aren’t stable for very long,” said Supervisor Mike Ennis.

“If trees are too old, crews are at real risk,” added Coyne.

“Thirteen-thousand trees is minor with the millions of dead trees in our county,” said Vander Poel, acknowledging that the proposal is just the beginning of a long-term project. “I think it’s great that we’re doing this and I’m going to be very supportive of this.”

Phase 2 of this effort is expected to include removing dead trees from 100 feet on either side of road, said Coyne. “This will be on a much larger scale than what we’re looking at now.”

“We want to start as soon as possible,” said Coyne late last week, still hoping that the first phase of this project, which the supervisors approved by a 4-0 vote, could start as early as this week.

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