In response to allegations of mismanagement, the Oregon Department of Transportation plans to hire an independent arborist or forester to review the state’s post-wildfire hazard tree removal operations.
Mac Lynde, ODOT’s director of Oregon’s Debris Management Task Force, told lawmakers in a hearing on Friday that the agency is working to sign a contract in the next couple of days with someone who can do a professional “quality assurance review” of how contractors are identifying and evaluating hazard trees along roads and properties.
“We’re working aggressively to get that underway quickly,” he said. “It’s an important step we want to ensure transparency of the operation but more importantly that we are delivering the quality product that Oregonians deserve.”
The state has already removed nearly 30,000 hazard trees along roads and properties that burned in last year’s wildfires, and it plans to remove a total of 140,000 trees.
Lynde told lawmakers about 74,000 trees have already been marked for removal using a three-phase review process involving at least one review by an arborist or forester. However, people who have worked on the project have raised serious questions about whether those reviews are being completed by experienced professionals using appropriate guidelines.
Multiple workers have reported seeing disorganization, a lack of oversight, time pressure and even drug use resulting in irresponsible and excessive tree-cutting.
Lynde said after additional reviews of potentially dangerous trees along roads and burned properties, the state and its contractors have adjusted the estimated number of hazard trees needing removal from around 300,000 to 140,000.
He also noted that his agency has been working with a disaster consulting firm, Alyssa Carrier Disaster Consulting, to ensure all of the post-wildfire cleanup work is done appropriately.
In response to a different set of complaints, Lynde told lawmakers ODOT is revising its notification process for property owners affected by wildfires.
A property owner told lawmakers on Wednesday that trees were marked for removal on her land without her knowledge or consent.
Lynde said the new process will aim to make it easier for people to have input on the wildfire cleanup work taking place on their property.
Lynde joined representatives from ODOT contractors CDR Maguire and Mason, Bruce & Girard in a second hearing on the hazard tree removal project Friday morning before the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery.
CDR Maguire owner Carlos Duart responded directly to some of the allegations involving his company, saying it has done an internal investigation of its Oregon operations for safety compliance and fired people for drug use.
Duart said someone without arborist qualifications would be allowed to do an initial assessment and mark trees for removal on the project, but he said they would only do so alongside an arborist or forester.
“A monitor of a field supervisor does not have to have an arborist qualification for this first pass,” Duart said. “And it’s also important to note that they probably will not participate in the later steps of the process. So they may not have an idea of the quality assurance process that is to follow.”
Eric Phillips, who was a field monitor for CDR Maguire and reported his concerns about his experience marking trees without any arborist qualifications, told lawmakers he saw about 40 people marking trees with only a couple of arborists on site along Highway 224.
“There was just too much work for the arborists out there,” Phillips said. “There were dozens of us out there, monitors, [task force leaders], CDR [Maguire] employees, just trying to pick up the workload is what I saw, honestly.”
After hearing from Mason, Bruce & Girard forester Joe Nelson about the three levels of review for hazard trees, Phillips said that increased his level of concern for what he saw in the field in the area burned in the Riverside Fire.
“It was a very ‘Hurry up. Let’s get trees cut and cut as many trees as we can,’” Phillips said. “I didn’t see any of the quality controls that they’re talking about. That terrifies me a little more.”
Committee chair Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, asked several pointed questions of people testifying and asked Phillips whether he would have seen additional arborists coming to check on the tree markings.
Phillips said he was on site every day from the time the trees were marked to the time they were cut and would have seen people reviewing the markings if that had happened.
Clem also acknowledged that his committee had been pressuring ODOT and its contractors to move faster on the Highway 224 tree removal project so that the highway could be reopened to the public.
“During this time this committee and others were pressuring them to hurry up,” Clem said. “I will take responsibility. We started bringing ODOT in every single week, proving you were getting this work done at a faster pace because we want recovery, and people won’t go in there as long as things are still hazardous. They’re taking heat from us at that time about speed.”
CDR Maguire and Mason, Bruce & Girard representatives shared testimony to assure lawmakers that the whole project was under control and operating responsibly, though it had undergone multiple changes to its guidelines for which trees to remove.
But Phillips’ firsthand experiences cast doubt on whether what the companies had put in their plans was actually happening on the ground.
Phillips said he saw tree fallers given the choice whether to cut certain trees or not and also saw them cutting trees that weren’t marked, without being charged the $2,000 penalty. He said he was asked to mark trees that tree fallers wanted to remove and that he has no forestry expertise but was given another arborist’s photo ID to use when he needed to mark trees to help falling crews. The falling crews get paid for each tree they remove, so they have financial incentives to cut more trees. He also said he never saw anyone from Alyssa Carrier Disaster Consulting, which Lynde told lawmakers is supposed to act as ODOT’s representative.
“Nobody was holding anybody accountable,” Phillips said. “That’s the problem.”
Clem asked Lynde a question he said a lot of lawmakers are asking now: “If something is being done sloppily or incorrectly, would we lose FEMA reimbursement for a chunk of the work?”
Lynde said contractors share the risk of losing FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] reimbursement with the state, and Duart said his company has more than a 99% success rate in receiving FEMA reimbursement.
In response to criticism of his company’s lack of experience removing hazard trees after wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, Duart shared a list of the managers working for CDR Maguire with their extensive experience working on wildfire cleanups, including some in California.
Clem asked Duart directly if CDR Maguire would make the state whole if FEMA denied Oregon disaster funding reimbursement because of the company’s missteps.
“We carry $2 million in professional liability insurance,” Duart told him. “Should we be found negligent or wanting, or whatever it is, yes, that policy would be available to the state of Oregon and its citizens for anything we did wrong.”
Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron told lawmakers that rebuilding work is moving forward in Detroit, where he used to live full time, and they should not stop the work of removing hazardous trees.
On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, asked Gov. Kate Brown to halt the state’s hazard tree removal project and investigate reports of mismanagement. But Cameron said stopping the project would delay important recovery work for places like Detroit, where he said 25% of the homes that were destroyed have applied for rebuilding permits.
“The recovery is moving forward,” Cameron said. “It’s important we don’t stop cutting the trees that need to come down for this recovery. The momentum is there. We need to make sure the hazard trees are removed and we can continue with this rebuild.”
After the hearing, Clem said he agrees with Cameron that the hazard tree removal project shouldn’t be suspended because it would delay too much of the wildfire recovery work that needs to move forward.