Cutting down a tree in California

”Anything that’s going to happen under this tree has to be addressed,” said Mr. Sartain, a third-generation arborist, surveying the tree’s 90-foot canopy with the cheerful, clinical detachment of your favorite pediatrician. ”There’s a lot of issues.”

Indeed, Mr. Sartain’s visit is only the first step in a process that will require the homeowner, who asked not to be named, to hire a private certified arborist at a cost of $500 to $2,000 to take pictures, prepare a report and perhaps to recommend protective pruning or other measures before a permit is issued and construction can proceed. Penalties for removing a tree like this, worth perhaps $100,000 under city guidelines because of its size and age, could force an offender to plant trees worth an equivalent amount.

Santa Clarita is not alone.

In the past 30 years, as development pressures increased, scores of California cities and counties from Thousand Oaks in the south to Santa Rosa in the north have passed ordinances protecting not only various species and sizes of oaks, but also sycamores, walnuts, eucalyptus and other trees with a zeal that might make the poet Joyce Kilmer blush.

The specifics vary widely, but the ordinances have one goal in common: protecting trees that are almost as storied in California as its redwoods and that have long been threatened by ranching, wine-making, suburban sprawl and, more recently, mysterious diseases.

Here is more from a 2001 NYT report.  Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires.

Via Elaine on Twitter.


This is just a bad post, pretty much a fluke of flukes. There is no way city tree regulations have anything to do with California wildland fires. The bloggist here is just completely ignorant from start to finish, from what would make Joyce Kilmer blush to the idea that it is the number of fires that is important when you can get hundreds of them out of a short lightning storm.

It is late at night, and the blogger should give himself permission to delete the post.

Don’t think so. Lived in Berkeley during the East Bay fire; it was brush, not these types of large mature trees that caused the fires. Crowning fires in large trees generally happen when there’s a heavy fuel load in the understory.

Here you go, an actual reference

You are 100% correct. Large oaks are not the problem. They are in fact keystone species that are valuable for reasons beyond their size and beauty. And they have been devastated by urbanization and wine grape cultivation.
The real problem are the younger, smaller trees, brush, and dry grasses. Also, the risk of wind causing a fire in the mountains is largely confined to the ridge tops - even a little way down into the canyons there is no wind at all. Nada.

With regard to the embarrassing third world debacle caused by PG&E's negligence, they could have greatly reduced fire risk by clearing the vegetation under those ridgetop power lines. Instead, they chose to pay out billions in dividends to their stockholders just before declaring bankruptcy.

Thanks for this new look at things. I'm interested to see how this evolves.

This is a unique point of view. I'm interested to know what develops in the future.

Here's a map of California's 2017 wildfires:

You basically need to blanket the entire state with workers to cut it all down. You could empty all of Mexico of its able-bodied workers and it wouldn't even be enough. In other words it is not economical and fires are a fact of life on the West Coast like Hurricanes on the East Coast or blizzards in the Midwest/Northeast. As a comment suggested, it isn't living trees, which those ordinances protect, that caused the fires but dry brush and dead trees. I don't feel this post was on its usual mark.

"Crowning fires in large trees generally happen when there’s a heavy fuel load in the understory."

Correct. The small trees and brush create a ladder effect that allows the fire to get into the big trees. Keep in mind the Native People's of California obtained the bulk of their carbohydrates from acorns. They maintained groves of oak tree by using fires to remove tree seedlings, brush, and grass, but not ALL the shrubs and grass as they were food sources also: the grasses provided seeds and fiber for weaving. Shrubs like toyon, coffeberry, elderberry, manzanita, lemonade berry, etc provided berries with valuable vitamin C. They managed the forests with fires. When a wildfire did occur it would be a slow and slow fire burning harmlessly in the greatly reduced understory.

Fast forward, and the lumber robber barrens of the nineteenth and 20th centuries clear-cut the forests leaving vast open spaces the allowed seedling trees to grow rapidly and become dense stands of same age same height trees. Suburban development crept into these unnatural second and third growth forests, thus creating the dreaded urban/wildland interface we have today.
The primeval forests consisted of enormous trees up to 20ft in diameter spaced so far apart that early settlers were amazed at the great distances they could see I'm the forest. Now the number of stems (trees) per acre is orders of magnitude larger than the pristine forest. These second and third growth forests need to be massively thinned out, but it is not ecenomicalky viable to do so. Lumber companies want to cut big trees but we need to preserve those. The small trees have little value and expensive to cut. Rabid low IQ ignorant environmentalists don't want any trees cut. They want mother nature to solve the problem via wildfires because the California ecosystems evolved to thrive in the presence of low intensity fires, but those fire occurred in stands of enormous trees spaced far apart, not dense stands of small trees. It's checkmate. Stupidity and stubbornness everywhere.

The mysterious oak disease of 2001 is no longer mysterious, it is "sudden oak death" caused by the fungus phytophthorah ramorum, imported by an idiot rhododendron, azalea, Camellia breeder. Yet another exotic invasive species destroying one of the most valuable floristic provinces on the planet.,as%20being%20present%20in%20Europe.

LOL. So if Floridians want less hurricanes, they should turn off their fans. If Texans don't want floods, they shouldn't let their bathwater run. We get it though. This is to protect PG&E and their negligent executives. I'm a libertarian in theory but in practice "libertarians" are just useful idiots for big corporations. The bank bailouts and Trump's election still have not change their thinking. That's a crying shame.

"The useful term 'anarcho-tyranny' describes that stage of governmental dysfunction in which the state is anarchically hopeless at coping with large matters but ruthlessly tyrannical in the enforcement of small ones."

Well, “ruthlessly tyrannical in the enforcement of “ selected “small ones”, totally ignoring others.

San Francisco for example, has chosen to be systematically helpless in responding to quality of life offenses - public drug use, open drug sales, assault, street defecation, blocking the public way, camping on the sidewalk, etc.

Its a considered and actively advocated choice. They are choosing poorly.

Trey thjis experiment.
Search for 'PGE programs'.

None of the first ten listings have anything to do with electricity anf fire. Here they are:
PG&E Energy Savings Assistance Program -
Energy Savings Program overview -
Energy Reduction and Weatherization -
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program - PG&E
PG&E Medical Baseline Allowance

And so on. I was up to the fifth page and found one notice from PGE about emergency power shut off. Nowhere did I see any notice or programs about trees and electricity even though my neighbor has a dead tree suspended ion the neighborhood power lines.

The only California rule I have seen on tree trimming was the Sierra Club opposing it in the legislature.

PGE simply does not have the funds for fire safety, the legislature has used all its excess funds for social engineering.


PG&E can't fart without approval from the CPUC ( Californian Public Utilities Commission). Take a look at the link below and read their bios. Search for "social Justice, environment, renewables, etc) and then you will know why PG&E is afu. Though PG&E is pretty good at screwing up itself.

The commisioners are appointed by the governor all but one by Jerry Brown, the other by the latest soy-boy clown.

What in any of the links supports "Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires?"

Maybe Tyler thinks the trees are valuable and will be cleared. But if California follows the same rules of thumb as Australia, if there are trees then the land they are on wasn't worth clearing in the first place. While those trees may be harvested for wood pulp every now and then, they grow back. It is of course in the wood pulp industry's interest for them to grow back as rapidly as possible.

Look, I like this new TDS Thiago it's a fresh look but the naming is bad. Stick to the excessively Anglo names or just go with Thiago. He would never use a name like that. Obvious troll here is not effective troll.

We run a tight ship right here. Let's try to keep it that way.

$100K in fines for chopping down a tree. If that's not "excessive", then words have no meaning.

Finally someone gets it.

No. They know the rules. A 200-300 year old oak cannot be replaced. Three hundred one year old oaks in one gallon cans isn't going to do it.

European forests have been repesctively cut down in the 18th and 19th centuries and have been repopulated with same age-same height trees as well. Still, wildfires are rarely devastating (except Portugal), since forest engineers laid sturdy woodbanks and left fire-preventive ditches and natural streams at given distances (city fires in contemporary Europe were common, so they copied the fire-prevention methods from urban planning).
So in what Europe is better is not preventing forest fires, but limiting their impact to the smallest area possible. And raking, of course (still no idea, what POTUS meant by that).

"wildfires are rarely devastating ... since forest engineers laid sturdy woodbanks and left fire-preventive ditches and natural streams at given distances". Depends which part of Europe you mean. British broadleaf woodland won't burn whatever you do to it; that's why we could have campfires in the woods when we were boys.

Conifer plantations will burn though, as will heathland and moorland.

With all due respect, the forests of California are very different. We have a Mediterranean climate with NO summer rain, except in parts of the Sierras. In addition, we have 'Santa Ana' winds that blow from the dry eastern areas towards the densely populated and more dense forests of the mountain ranges to the west - the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Diablo and Gavilan ranges etc.

The humidity is very low, and as a consequence the forest duff is very dry - it is very easy for fires in these areas to "blow up". The pine forests of the Sierra Foothills, the oak woodlands, the oak savannas, chapparal, etc are all dry, have coevolved with fire, and are near very densely populated areas.

Our firefighters are some of the best in the world - highly trained and with a great deal of experience fighting fires all over the state all spring, summer, and fall.

Europe is in no way similar to the American West.

I concur, having lived in the central coast for a spell. Also, Tyler's statement: "deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires." is utter, arrogant nonsense. He displays here not even a google-search knowledge of the background of CA fires. Disappointing from one who is supposedly educated.

I was shocked too. Typically I disagree with Tyler for philosophical reasons. But I expect he'll use this exchange as an education opportunity.

Minor quibble on Ed's comment. Yes, the Sierra gets precipitation in the summer, but with it comes the risk of lightning. What is the net effect of these two things? But perhaps it just furthers the point.

I knew if I did not mention the summer rain in the Sierras someone would pounce on me. :) To be truthful, I am less familiar with the patterns of fires in the Sierras.

California is an enormous state with diverse ecosystems and micro-climates.

Tyler - you do not have to post compulsively or to provoke - In dubio, abstine

Can anyone tell yet whether PG&E execs shut off power to the wrong locales? --that is, did any of these wildfires break out in areas not affected by the (earlier?) rolling power blackouts?

If PG&E left power on in transmission lines close to where the Saddleridge Fire broke out, let's say, PG&E failed to anticipate where the greatest fire danger was waiting, someone might argue (in court or no). Should PG&E have been able to accurately predict just where an opportunistic wildfire would break out?

How is it that southern Californians went so tree crazy so long ago? (I do not know the histories of either Thousand Oaks or Thousand Palms.) The prevailing arid climate of southern California, at least, seems to have meant NOTHING to hydraulic engineers of the region, much less to arborists committed to making southern California landscapes the natural extension of Hollywood and Disney fantasy factories.

What do Californians have against cacti, anyway?

The Camp fire was started by downed transmission lines, two places detected by power line monitoring. These are lines in the 100kv and up range.

If transmission line power is cut, distribution lines will have no power, which carry 69kv and less plus 220v lines in residential.

Trees are well adapted to California. For example, while 80% of houses burned 100%, most of the trees survived and are green today. No more than 50% will die in five years from both weakened root systems before the fire from the disruption of roads, under ground utilities, drives, foundations, and then the fire stress, including toxic fire runoff.

Being residential, trees had the natural spacing for tree groves thinned by regular wildfires.

Trees don't burn unless too closely spaced and the understory provides too much fuel to produce a long hot fire. Leaves and needles are expendable to protect the tree.

"Thousand Oaks or Thousand Palms" were named when people were so darn happy to find them. Outside the mountains California is very tree poor.

In Thousand Oaks the natural habitat was very old oaks widely spaced in grassland. Good photos here:

"Outside the mountains California is very tree poor."

I think that is probably true for southern California but not in Central or Northern California. We have dense forests up here, except in the Central Valley and the far northeastern corner of the state.

Oak savannas are, by definition, composed of oaks spaced far apart separated by open grassland, historically composed of native, fire resistant, deep rooted (up to 20 feet) perennial bunch grasses. Sadly, the natives were overwhelmed by introduced European annual grasses. Annual grasses complete their life cycle in one year, produce abundant seeds, turn brown, dry out, and die. The dead grasses, unlike deep rooted native perennial grasses, do not have access to moisture and thus burn fast and hot. Grass fires move quickly. My best friend owned 10 acres in Bella Vista, CA where some old knucklehead decided to mow his dead grasses in 100°F weather. The mower blade struck a rock and thousands of acres burned. My friend's land was used by the CDF as a staging area. Invasive species and one knucklehead with gasoline powered tools is all it takes to burns thousands of acres. They keep the firefighters employed.

There are many other types of oak forests besides oak savannas - oak woodlands (continuously closed canopy), mixed evergreen forests, valley oak riparian forests ( quercus lobata), oak/madrone forests (my fave), etc.

We have many forest types dense with trees.

Note again that the native peoples, like the Ohlones, managed oak forests with fire.

Predicting forest fires is easy, Elon Musk announces them.

Simple two step procedures. PGE announces a future cut off, Elon announces that everyone should go home and charge their electric before the black out.
Step three, Teslas cause power surge and forest fire.,

(As a little kid I was very disappointed at how few palms there were. Twentynine Palms, California, is much more honest.)

"Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires."

It doesn't work as satire; reflexive contrarianism requires some modicum of information; weirdo hubris on display; Not Even Wrong - did you finally succumb to the LSD craze and have the most boring trip ever?

Are you sure you didn't mean to say, deregulating municipal historic preservation rules will limit California wildfires? Because it makes just about as much sense. I've never even been to California, apart from one long-ago uncomfortable family Thanksgiving in Palm Springs, and I'm sure you've been there hundreds of times - so why does it feel like you haven't been there? Maybe less time spent in cities, when you travel, is advisable, for someone who seemingly wants to think about everything?

Go speed-read up on, ya know, the Santa Ana winds, the natural fire regime, invasive exotic weeds increasing the frequency of fire, the increase in the wildland-urban interface. You may have to be open to what will be a troubling thought to you, that population growth is not an unmitigated good: "Within the perimeter of recent wildfires (1990-2015), there were 286,000 houses in 2010, compared with 177,000 in 1990." (I wonder how those numbers have changed in the last four years?)

And don't be complacent: it's two states, obviously - or is it three? - so you'll need to do two sets of research.

You might wind up here, since you prize novelty:

"In California, the state with more building destruction by wildfire than all of the other states combined, new research by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service scientist and University of Wisconsin-Madison partners found something surprising. Over nearly three decades, half of all buildings destroyed by wildfire in California were located in an area that is described as having less of the grasses, bushes and trees that are thought to fuel fire in the wildland-urban interface ...

"Our findings show that WUI areas do experience the vast majority of all losses, with 82 percent of all buildings destroyed due to wildfire located in the WUI," Mockrin said. "We were surprised to find 50 percent of all buildings lost to fire being destroyed in the interface portion of the WUI, however. Many risk reduction plans focus on natural vegetation fueling fire, but in the interface WUI where so much of the destruction is occurring, we have to consider finer-grained fuels such as wood piles, propane tanks, and cars."

"Study findings suggest that wildfires are still rare in urban areas ...

Then hit us with that contrarian take.

Or just outsource California posts to EdR and Steve Sailer from now on. Take a break, you deserve it!

"Though it is Australia, and from 16 years ago, this video provides a fantastic view of a wildfire sweeping through a neighborhood - and it was not really the vegetation that lit up, it was the buildings."

Glancing at the first few comments, they seem not to perceive that.

Strange. Amid those trees that are yet unaffected, all those houses burning - hard to see in the smoke but no brush evident. Or: if trees are somehow carrying the fire, rather than the wind, the conclusion must be that the safe number of trees in a suburban area is zero.

Or maybe the trees that are most indisputably the problem are the ones the houses are made of.

I was wondering, does California at least have metal power poles? We do not, except for some of the high-transmission lines.

We were talking about this, and my husband mentioned the altered fire regime due to the loss of naturally sparse native sagebrush habitat in the Great Basin; the increase in "fine fuels" - a large percentage exotic grasses that come in with roads - resulting in some areas burning as frequently as every 3 to five years.

A few years ago, a grass fire claimed the lives of a newlywed couple frantically trying to collect their animals, in the treeless Panhandle of this state.

If you look at photos of the deadliest fire in California history - the Camp fire (npi) in Paradise, CA where 85 people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed, including that of my manager's mother - you will see lots of green living trees next to the remains of houses, ash piles amidst a stone or brick chimney.


The false narrative that large trees next to houses burn and then pass the fire to the structure.

The real reason is that fires create their own weather - blazing hit hurricane like winds that sound like a screaming jet engine or a locomotive. These horizontal winds get up under the eaves of houses and force tiny burning need through the code required vent holes. Those embers settle in the attic space and burn the house from the inside out. The full size tree 5 feet away often does just fine.

I meant to write "force tiny burning embers through the code required ..."

I hate your politics, EdR. But you completely own this thread. +10

My rulings are apolitical, and I agree. +10 additional internet points to EdR.

I sometimes mention it here when I've been down the hill to clear brush. So I do my part. California is big, but in our area most fire risk comes from seasonal grasses. They are what the fire departments really want cleared. There is a lot of springtime buzzing of the weed whackers in the neighborhood. Chaparral species grow fast too, amazingly so with little rain. I cut them down and they grow 6-8 feet by next spring.

We have just one native oak on the slope. I watch out for it. But it will probably take another hundred years to really look good.

I actually had to buzz the hillside twice this year. That's never happened before. So much late spring rain that the grasses grew back.

Good exercise.

We used goats for the same purpose.

So anyway, fire risk aside, what is going on with tree laws?

As I say, we Californians tend to think trees are rare and precious, and have kind of adopted the position that when you own a 500 year old oak, you are steward of that 500 year old oak.

The eucalyptus is the clunker in that paragraph. Nice to look at, but invasive and dangerous. I can see a dozen from my kitchen window, and about once a year one crashes down. The last one buried a picnic bench. Good thing no one was at it.

Anyway that's the status quo. It might be a bit statist for me, but neither would I want all the old oaks to disappear.

"Valley oak (Quercus lobata), native to central and interior valleys of California, is one of the tallest-growing deciduous oaks. Specimens growing more than 130 feet tall were recorded in the Ojai area. A tree near Covelo is 153 feet high with a crown spread of 99 feet. Estimated ages for these tall trees is about 1,000 years."

Yes, the eucalyptus is a pest, a non-native species that is often replaced with native trees, except in some areas the monarchs overwinter in eucalyptus groves which are untouchable.

Hey, the eucalyptus is a great tree and is often grown in developing countries because it drops large amounts of easy to gather firewood... Oh wait, I see where you are going with this.

This isn't about trees, this is about Cowen's belief that wealth creation facilitated by the absence of government regulation is the path to solving our greatest challenges including global warming. Reason or religious zealotry?

"Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires."
Coming from Tyler this level of ignorance is hard to believe. With an "of course", no less.

You have some problem with the guy, I'm not sure what. I enjoy your comments here though.
I learn a lot from Tyler's posts. It feels like the amount of agenda here has been climbing, but it's still unusual for him to post something that is just flat out scientifically false like this.

Hmm. Unusual, you say. I can't say I'm equally as confident of that. I seem to notice a regular regurgitation of less than stellarly considered posts. Of course, I have no idea of a count - so it could be a false impression.

He was fired for cause many years ago by the same university (GMU) where Cowen is a professor. He fled to Germany and fell in love with Cowen from afar. Now he posts here every day hoping to get his attention.

Ok but this blog doesn't represent GMU and Mercatus, Tyler was posting his opinion. There can be fascinating people who work for unpleasant places.
I think what disturbs me about the trees comment is that Tyler appears to be flirting with climate change denial. In favor of your broad point, it does sound like making it cheaper to pollute is the most repugnant part of the Mercatus platform.

So if you look at the referenced twitter account, her point is really about tree trimming not cutting down trees.
Not to say that most of the comments aren't very informative.

There is already an incentive to preserve trees on your property: they increase property values. However, what laws like this do is burden people. If a tree is damaged, sick, or rotted and likely to fall on your house, you cannot do anything about it without spending a ton of money. Just because it would be good to preserve trees does not give a city the right to burden people with expenses. If it is such a great public good, provide people with arborists at city expense to help save the trees.

"Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires"

Cowen's never even held a chain saw, let alone used one.

Sadly, very true. A single tree on common land in an HOA had to be cut. It was planted by a well meaning homeowner. A study had to be done, money spent and it was refused. Finally, it was refused by the city until it was pointed out that it was destroying a city sidewalk and irrigation facilities. Permission to cut and fee waived! Cities copy each other in regulating housing to death. we were quietly advised not even to ask about trees that affected houses along major streets. It seem private action at night happens.

Ohh get stuffed. It's not the coddled suburban trees that are causing wildfires, and you know it. It's not the old-growth forests that are commercially viable to cut that are causing fires. It's the brush and shrub and new trees growing up around the powerlines.

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