Malibu’s 250-Year-Old Sycamores on the Chopping Block

Southern California Edison

Southern California Edison, in the wake of the Thomas and Woolsey fires, submitted an aggressive “2019 Wildfire Mitigation Plan” to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last month to trim or cut thousands of trees in high fire risk areas that are near power lines. This is part of the company’s effort to reduce the risk of wildfires that have been estimated to cost them nearly $5 billion.

The new plan will allow SCE to do things in the name of “vegetation management” that they have never done before. Prior to 2017, there was a mandatory four feet of vegetation clearance around power lines; that is now a 12-foot zone from power poles, and all trees and brush under power lines that might grow into the 12-foot zone. 

In the past, Edison was required by the state to take down dead and dying trees; the new plan includes taking down healthy trees. Over the next two years, SCE plans to cut down 22,500-45,000 healthy trees that could fall or blow into power lines, including trees as much as 200 feet away.

In addition, new state law AB 2911 gives Edison unlimited access to private land to trim or remove trees from around power lines. They are mandated to tell the owners before they trim, but SCE no longer needs to seek permission.

The top priority areas for tree trimming are in Tier 2 or 3 of a fire risk map that SCE filed with the California Public Utilities Commission. The map shows almost all of Malibu is in Tier 3: extreme risk.

Some residents on Bonsall Drive were notified by phone recently that Edison intends to begin trimming and/or removing trees on their street shortly, making some residents very upset.

The tree cutting began last month in the towns of Altadena, La Cañada-Flintridge, La Verne and other nearby communities, and residents are not happy—healthy trees were cut down and residents complained they were hacked into grotesque shapes by SCE’s contractors. 

Angry residents called local and state politicians, who called a town hall meeting in Pasadena, attended by Edison CEO Pedro Pizarro, who told them he must put his power lines ahead of their trees. “We know that homeowners care deeply for their surrounding environment and for their foliage, and we want to respect that,” Pizarro said at the meeting, according to the LA Times. “However we will prioritize the safety of your home and our communities, first and foremost. So, we will trim trees when needed.”

Resident Greg Williams told LAist, “Literally, they butchered the trees with the intention of killing them, and that’s what people up here in Altadena are up against.”

SCE spokespeople have said owners should have kept their trees from growing into power lines or planted trees that wouldn’t grow too tall. They have a “Right Tree, Right Place” brochure to help people choose trees less likely to interfere with power lines.

Some local residents raised the question on social media of whether the old native Sycamore trees on Bonsall were protected by law. The City of Malibu Local Coastal Plan (LCP) protects native oaks, California Walnuts, Western Sycamores, Alder and Toyons bigger than six inches in diameter, but the LCP is used for development purposes—it doesn’t address healthy trees being cut by power companies. 

Another resident offered the reassurance that even a severely topped sycamore tree will grow back in a couple years; local organic gardener Andy Lopez said most severely trimmed trees can be brought back with the right kind of care and treatment. 

The specific rules Edison follows when trimming trees, according to filings with the CPUC, can be looked up under Order 95, Rule 35, Table 1, Case 14 for high fire risk areas and state Public Resource Code section 4295.5.

This story was compiled using reporting from the LA Times and LAist.