Officials scramble to sign up Camp Fire survivors for private property tree removal program
Jim Boyd didn’t think it’d come to this.
Boyd, whose Paradise home burned in the Camp Fire, took a chainsaw to one of his favorite trees on his property: a fire-scorched conifer he had planted about 25 years ago.
“I thought it was going to get as big as some of these pines that are out here,” he told the CN&R between felling the tree and lopping off its limbs. “It’s just kind of sad. It kind of just puts another nail in the coffin, so to speak.”
Boyd and his wife, Rhoda, relocated to Gridley after the fire, buying a house there and finding the community welcoming and closely knit. Boyd said he’s unsure whether he will rebuild on his Neal Road property near the Skyway, but he recently began removing dead trees on the land that could pose a danger to nearby roads. They will be used for firewood.
His work precedes a broader government-sponsored effort set to begin this month to remove dead or dying trees standing on private property in the burn scar that could threaten public rights-of-way. Boyd said he’s going to participate in the government tree removal program, too. There are some hazardous trees on his property—such as a dead redwood, pines and oaks—that are too big to fell himself. He’s filled out and submitted a right-of-entry form to allow workers on his property to complete the task, which will come at no out-of-pocket cost, akin to the massive debris removal program completed in the fall.
But county officials say people like Boyd are in the minority. Out of the roughly 13,200 parcels in the town of Paradise and unincorporated areas of Butte County that are required to enter the private property tree-removal program, forms had been submitted for only about 3,400 as of last Thursday (Dec. 26), said Casey Hatcher, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer. The lag in sign-ups has caused officials to find new ways to reach fire survivors who may no longer live in the area or have emotionally tuned fire-related happenings out of their lives.
Officials have sent mailers and mass emails, and are making direct phone calls, Hatcher said. Starting this week, property owners may receive a robocall or text message informing them about the tree removal program. Staffers also are urging those in the know to tell their friends and neighbors.
The biggest question, Hatcher told the CN&R, is, “literally, Where are they?”
The work comes as a Jan. 17 deadline—recently pushed back from Dec. 20—looms. It’s possible—though not desirable—that liens could be placed against properties with owners who don’t enter the government tree removal program or remove hazardous trees themselves, Hatcher said. Officials would attempt to gain legal access to properties from a court and pass the cost of removing trees to the owner. There were fewer than 50 properties where such abatement action was taken during debris removal efforts.
“We don’t want that,” Hatcher said. “We want people to meet their requirement by identifying and removing [trees] on their own or entering the government program.”
Either way, they will need to submit either a right-of-entry form to participate in the government program or an inspection access form if they choose to remove the trees themselves.
The government program is largely funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and run by the state. CalRecycle last month announced its intent to award a $68 million contract to Pasadena-based firm Tetra Tech Inc., which managed a portion of the debris removal, to also oversee the tree removal program.
The town and county, in coordination with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), have been working since the fire to push FEMA for funding to remove all hazard trees in the burn scar, Hatcher said. FEMA approved funding for the removal of trees on private property that threaten public rights-of-way, denied it for trees on private properties that only threaten those properties, and talks are ongoing regarding trees on private property that threaten private roads.
Hatcher said she hopes an answer to the latter will come in the next several weeks.
The Paradise branch of the Butte County Library serves as one of three right-of-entry form collection centers in the county. That center’s manager, George Morris, and a staff of about six walk property owners through the tree-removal program checklist. Some people come in prepared, having found guidance online. Others come in cold, needing a bit more help. The center sees about 30 people per day, but on busy days—typically when a deadline is approaching—it’s not uncommon to see more than 100 property owners.
Morris said he understands the irritability the program can cause fire survivors. To some, it’s “just one more thing” the government is forcing them to do. But he and his staff try to drive home the point that it’s about keeping folks safe.
Before the Camp Fire, he said, it wasn’t uncommon for wind storms to knock down trees in Paradise and the surrounding communities. Now, with tens of thousands of burned, weakened trees, that danger persists, if not more so.