Experienced arborists question county’s assessment of hazard trees in Butte Creek Canyon
Ron Smith began noticing the marks about a month ago.
A longtime resident of Butte Creek Canyon, he spotted two vertical, parallel lines painted in orange on the trunks of oak, pine and sycamore trees that line Centerville and Honey Run roads. Further inquiry revealed the marks mean the trees have been identified as hazardous by the county and are slated for removal starting in mid-September.
Smith, a former certified arborist, and others, including Robin McCollum, also a former certified arborist and retired county tree crew foreman, took a closer look at the marked trees in the canyon and say they believe roughly 20 percent of them have been improperly deemed hazardous.
Some appear to have been scorched in the Camp Fire but are showing signs of healing and survival, they say. Others may have been affected by the heat of the blaze but are otherwise structurally sound. And a few don’t appear to have been touched by fire at all—a curiosity they say raises efficacy questions about the tree-removal project.
“I’ve lived in the canyon for 33 years,” Smith told the CN&R on a recent trip along Honey Run and Centerville roads with McCollum. “I’m pretty familiar with most of the trees. I said to myself, ‘Well, yeah, I can agree that some of these trees need to go but not all of these trees.’”
A county-hired firm has identified about 7,000 burned, dead or dying trees deemed hazardous in accordance with federal guidelines. The trees—all of which lie within the county rights-of-way—are slated for removal as part of ongoing Camp Fire recovery efforts. About 670 are in the canyon, with the rest identified in the Magalia, Lower Ridge, Butte Valley and Concow areas.
Tree removal work outside the canyon is scheduled to begin in stages starting later this year and into next year. A vast majority of the cost of the work—which has totaled at least $3.5 million in associated contracts so far—is expected to be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).
Locals, however, say the number of trees they’ve identified as possibly improperly marked raises concerns that healthy trees will be unnecessarily removed. The trees, they argue, provide shade and hinder the growth of fire-driving brush and other vegetation in the area’s understory.
Residents also say they have largely been left in the dark about tree-removal plans, and a system set up to dispute them—which includes sending the Public Works Department an email with a photo of the tree, GPS coordinates and reason for the dispute—is cumbersome and ill-publicized.
Smith and McCollum presented their concerns to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Aug. 27), when the panel took up contracts supporting the tree project. There, Supervisors Debra Lucero and Tami Ritter questioned the timeline of tree removal while disputes persist, whether more community outreach can be done, and the criteria used to determine whether a tree is hazardous or not.
Radley Ott, assistant public works director, said removing trees in the canyon—particularly along Centerville Road—is a priority before winter arrives because of the threat of inclement weather knocking trees across the roadway.
“It’s one way in and out through there,” Ott said. “We’re trying to get those trees out. If we have downed trees in the winter, that could be a problem.”
Trees marked for removal, he said, have been deemed hazardous by the county-hired firm American Tree Medics, a Modesto-based firm that specializes in forest management and arborist services. Assessments include a 360-degree observation of a tree, as well as examination of physical features and, at times, sample collection and analysis.
The process to dispute trees was put in place by Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt, Ott said, adding that work was underway to better explain and present that process to the public online.
At one point during the board’s discussion, Lucero noted the issue fell within Supervisor Doug Teeter’s district and asked whether he would be open to meeting his constituents regarding tree-removal concerns.
Teeter said his constituents know he is open to meeting with them. He added that he believes the dispute process set up by Schmidt is appropriate and encouraged residents to bring their concerns forward because the county can make mistakes. He also pointedly recalled his experience escaping the Camp Fire.
“I think we all really forget what I went through,” he said. “People died because of vegetation along the roads. People died. I am sorry. I love trees. I don’t want people to die because of my love for trees.”
Teeter told the CN&R that a Camp Fire recovery open house for Butte Creek Canyon will be held Saturday (Sept. 7), from 4-6 p.m., at the Centerville Schoolhouse.
Back on Centerville Road, near Center Gap Road, Smith parked his truck near an oracle oak tree. He’s admired the 80-plus year-old tree for the past 15 years. It’s a hybrid between a black oak and interior live oak, he said. “Somewhere in nature way back when, they got together and formed this phenomenon.”
In the fall, its leaves turn in contrasting yellow and green hues. A couple of years ago Smith collected seedlings from the tree following a particularly good year of acorn production, planting them and gifting them to friends. He has a few left.
The tree has been marked, however, with two orange vertical lines.
Smith and McCollum said it didn’t appear to be touched by fire. It’s also, in their assessment, healthy and not a threat to fall over Centerville Road. It has a cavity in its trunk likely caused by a branch that had been improperly cut, which McCollum said could signal a problem but not a significant one.
“It’s not a hazard in any way, and it’s not fire-damaged,” he said, taking a walk around the tree for himself. “Poor execution of the assessment.”
Smith urged county officials to re-evaluate trees marked for removal.
“We have time,” he said, adding, “Slow the train. Slow the train, you know?”