Out of the Fire

Out of the Fire

Safety

Dustin Lauf, Regional Supervisor, CNUC

California is a beautiful place to live. We Californians get to enjoy winding rivers, clear lakes, scenic mountains and miles upon miles of oceanic views. However, living in California isn’t always easy. In addition to winter, spring, summer and fall, Californians also go through the most dreaded season of all — fire season. Fire season generally ranges from mid-May to late October. Historically, October is the worst month of the season. According to the Californian government, seven of the 10 most destructive California wildfires started in the month of October. Although most California wildfires occur within the normal range of months, recent weather pattern changes have made fire season more erratic. The second largest California wildfire in history, the Thomas Fire, began in December of 2017. With fires regularly ripping through our landscapes, vegetation programs have increased the work load for post-fire patrols to ensure that both the public and new infrastructures are better protected.

In the summer of 2018, we utility arborists faced the challenge of inspecting thousands of burnt trees along miles of transmission and distribution lines. We had to determine which trees needed to be dealt with immediately, which trees appeared to be dying but weren’t a priority and which trees will likely survive. We also had to work with returning property owners, law enforcement, National Guard, fire departments and the utility to restore power to the lands that may or may not still have homes.

From a management perspective, postfire inspections can be very stressful. Not only are we sending inspectors and qualified tree crew personnel in to inspect and remove hazardous trees in dangerous areas, we’re also asking them to do it while keeping safety and compassion for people’s property and losses in mind.

Safety is always our top priority. We cannot have a successful day if even one person is harmed while working.

Safety is always our top priority. We cannot have a successful day if even one person is harmed while working. We require all employees to keep very accurate information about the number of trees they have deemed hazardous and which ones they have worked on. These numbers are recorded and submitted to supervisors during one of their many status calls throughout the day. We also work very closely with the utility crews that are working diligently to install new power lines. In fall 2018, the post-fire patrol used circuit maps provided by the utility to mark the location of the trees needed to be worked on and noted any access issues or hazards in the area. At the end of each day, we highlighted our actions on the maps and then transferred it all onto a larger circuit map to track progress as a complete group. All relevant tree data (i.e., tree species, height, DBH and trim type) was recorded on paper, added to the maps and then given to the tree crews just like a work request.

For most of us working in the utility vegetation management industry, the most dangerous part of our job is the large amount of driving we complete on a daily basis. However, for post-fire patrols the real danger doesn’t start until we begin our patrols. In fall 2018, we regularly encountered downed wires that were potentially still energized, witnessed massive trees fall around us after days of smoldering and had to be very careful to not fall into large cavities left in the ground after root pockets had burnt away.

Post-fire patrols are dangerous but necessary. Qualified inspectors, tree trimmers, and utility personnel put in long hours day after day in order to achieve our number one goal of delivering safe and reliable power. During fire season, the post-fire patrols work extended hours for multiple weeks without days off and still maintain a heightened sense of situational awareness. If we had one misstep while working in the field, the consequence could be not going home. Regardless, we knew our job was important — we were willing to put ourselves in danger to help people whose lives were changed forever by the fires.

 

This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.

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