Early January. Big storm, lots of rain; the electricity goes off for four days. I'm not home. I'm traveling. I return a few days later and there it is: the long puddle of putrid water emanating from the bottom of the refrigerator.
Many people who live in the woodsy, rural areas of northern California have seen this puddle before. We know the drill. Mop up the water; open the freezer and refrigeration compartment and get your butt to work. Later, it's all wiped down with Clorox.
What was my damage this time? Eight packages of Costco chicken; blanched and frozen vegetables from last year's garden; steaks and pork chops; a pack of Italian sausage; something weird and yellowish in a plastic container that may have been there for years. But most importantly, the tuna and salmon I'd stashed away. I buy the fish off the docks from fishermen selling it fresh from their boats. There were salmon steaks and albacore fillets, all laboriously vacuumed packed: two-dozen packages or more.
After the lights went out, it was now a total waste. I cut everything out of their packages. Into buckets it went. I didn't toss it in the compost, because it's much too close to the house. A black bear knows where I live. It may have taken days to finish his meal. Then what? Hang around for another bite? I put the tasty morsels in my truck and dumped them a mile away. If the garbage police are looking for evidence to lock me up for littering, the raccoons and skunks have eaten evidence.
I was saddened by my loss. The bill for the raccoon dinner added up to $300 or more. Seeking compensation, I complained to PG&E. Here ís the answer I got.
"Thank you for your patience while we investigated your claim. The cause of the outage was a tree which [sic] fell onto PG&E facilities due to the server [sic] storm which [sic] struck the region. PG&E does not insure its customers against losses arising out of circumstances beyond our reasonable control."
PG&E used to compensate for food losses due to long periods without electricity. I recall when neighbors and myself received a $100 check for losses sustained. Of course, that was long ago before PG&E was caught up in millions of dollars of fines and lawsuits resulting from the San Bruno pipeline disaster of 2010 when eight PG&E customers were burnt to a crisp “arising out of circumstances beyond our reasonable control.” I guess the power monopoly is low on money. That's why they keep raising our rates while their profits zoom to the sky.
The PG&E power line that serves hundreds of customers scattered along the ridge where I live runs parallel to my property. Over the years, I've watched PG&E's vegetative clearance that keeps trees and branches from fouling the lines. They've hired various private companies to keep the power lines cleared. When I first built my house, three guys in a pickup showed up. The pickup door read Sonner Tree Services, if I remember it right. The foreman was a muscular Mexican-American. One guy was thin and nimble, the other was a tall man, a former logger and biker who rode with the Gypsy Jokers. They had various chainsaws and climbing gear, and as soon as they arrived they went immediately to work; their foreman was a hard-ass guy. However, he led by example, working as hard as he ruled.
Beneath and along the power line, these guys took everything down to earth. Tick brush, fir and tan oak; if it was green it was going down. They pulled the slash into piles. They cut the hardwood into four-foot sections, piled it up, and left the wood for those in need of fire wood. After that, they climbed the big trees next to the wires to remove overhanging branches that could have fallen or shorted the wires. When they finished, there was virtual roadway under the lines. It was so clean of vegetation that it created a firebreak that could have stopped a forest fire.
In the winter they returned and burned the piles of slash. They did a fantastic job. After Sonner left, Davey Tree Service came in for the work. They had more employees and equipment, but they did a decent job, reinforcing what happened before, clearing everything under and over the lines. Of course, there were outages during these times, but are there more outages now?
After Davey Tree everything changed.
One day a strange looking fellow came walking out of the woods onto my property. He wore a pith helmet. He was attired in an orange vest with many pockets containing pencils and rolls of multi-colored tape. There were dual canisters of spray paint in scabbards on his belt, and he held some kind of computerized clipboard in his hand. He looked like a cross between an old-fashioned African explorer and a crossing guard for school kids.
I asked him what he was doing. He said he was marking and taping trees for PG&E to clear vegetation away from their power lines. As best I can recall, he wasn't employed by PG&E. He was employed by some kind of environmental company. One thing I clearly remember about our conversation was that he told me that in the future there would be no need for power lines. No need for harming and removing vegetation. In the future power would be distributed wireless through the air by some kind of process or principle discovered by Nikola Tesla.
A couple of weeks later, another guy shows up out of the woods. He's older. No orange vest; no tape; no spray cans. His job? He checks on the markings of the first guy out of the woods — Tesla man with the pith helmet. The second guy was forthcoming. He too worked for an environmental company. Whether the same or different company from Tesla man, I don't recall.
What's the difference? It's all about green companies chasing the lucrative green. He told me that there were lots of new rules concerning clearing vegetation beneath PG&E power lines. We chatted for some time, and when I offered an opinion that since most environmentalists create nothing, and since their parents pay tons of money for their education, the State of California, in all its liberal wisdom, must find some way for them to eat. Regulations are their food. I'm sure he thought he'd met another oddball in the woods, but since he was an older guy and probably once had a real job, he didn't disagree.
Then the clearing began.
Some weeks later, I heard chainsaws down along the power line. They'd start up for a minute or two, cease for a bit and then begin again, also for a short time. I walked down to check it out. Three guys were clearing vegetation beneath the lines. But not like old Sonner or Davey Tree where the buzz of saws went on all day. These guys were the manicurists of vegetation, a little here and a little there, but mainly very little. Guided by the spray dots and hanging tapes Tesla man had placed, they were removing selected pieces of vegetation like a hair stylist manages hair.
One guy was up in a tree, a tanoak not more than six inches at the butt. He was harnessed in climbing gear and was using his chainsaw to lop about three feet off the top of the tree. Three feet! I wondered why the slender tree didn't bend and lower his ass to the ground. What he was doing took some time. The guys from Sonner would have sawed the tree off at the ground in ten seconds and moved on to the next.
Another man who I observed had a long pole used for lopping branches. He was taking the tops off of tick brush that was growing towards the wires. Ditto for some tiny firs. It was haircut time beneath wires.
After these fellows left, did they think the tick brush would cease to grow or that the sapling fir wouldn’t extend a branch to keep growing towards the clouds? Within minutes, they could have easily dropped it all.
I'd learned from the second man out of the woods, the one who checked on the first, that the men I was observing did not climb trees to address the overhanging branches. That was a job for a union man, special training and all. I'd learned from the biker with Sonner that they didn't need to be in a union to climb and limb trees. They had one essential rule: stay four feet from any active power line. Inside of that, electrocution was their fate. How much training did they need?
This Sisyphean process that I observed that first morning when I heard the sporadic buzzing of the chainsaws has continued on for years. The little haircuts never cease. Worse, the cuttings are left haphazard where they fall. There are now solid mattings of dry, dead brush beneath the lines — perfect roads for forest fires.
The letter I received from PG&E also stated that they could not guarantee continuity of electric service due to inevitable accidents of nature. I think that people who live in rural settings know more about acts of nature than most. Isn't nature why we're here?
Not all accidents are inevitable. Take San Bruno as an example. Take our overgrown power lines for instance. If the vegetation were properly cleared with rules of common sense, there would be a lot more light in our lives. And, there'd be no more stink on my floor.