Power line tree-trimmer delivers a manicure, not a haircut

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- For the better part of three decades, Bill Jardel's job has involved cutting back trees.

Jardel is a ''certified arborist.'' The Matanuska Electric Association employee said he's taken off branches encroaching on power lines with a handsaw, rather than a chain saw, just to demonstrate to trainees how delicately a utility's safety goals can be achieved.

The 49-year-old is serious about tree care.

When trees conflict with power lines, utilities are required to clear them out. But Jardel maintains that easements -- swaths of land under lines maintained by power companies -- don't need to look like airstrips: Well-trained, sensitive crews can help power lines and trees coexist. A recent national award given to MEA for responsible clearing practices backs up his philosophy.

''We don't cut 'em, we just give 'em a manicure,'' he clarified.

Utilities nationwide have largely accepted that maintaining a routine right-of-way easement clearing schedule translates into fewer outages, less cost, increased reliability and more customer satisfaction.

Utilities have also generally noticed that how they clear is almost as important as clearing itself, since a badly pruned tree is enough to bring visions of lawyers to customers' heads.

The National Arbor Day and the National Association of State Foresters started ''Tree Line USA'' to recognize utilities that have adopted current training standards, and promote public education and community involvement.

In 1994, eight utilities received the award; in 2001, the number hit 82. That year Matanuska Electric Association was a Tree Line USA utility for the third time.

Chris O'Brien, tree clearing program manager for Chugach Electric Association in Anchorage, said the Tree Line certification gives the cooperative credibility with customers that the company's crews know what they're doing when they request permission to cut trees on homeowners' property.

MEA clearing foreman Joel Stefanski said trees are the culprit in 90 percent of power outages. That means most of a clearing crewman's job is cutting down trees, but it's how the work is done that makes it more than just a job.

Much of the clearing along MEA's 2,600 miles of line is contracted out to private companies that run giant brush-eating machines along easements. But anything that's hazardous is handled by the Palmer utility's clearing crew.

Picture sitting in the upper limbs of a tree within spitting distance of power lines coursing with 7,200 to 230,000 volts of electricity. Now fire up your chain saw and remove branches within inches of the line.

That's the reason the Occupational Safety and Health Administration only lets qualified personnel into those situations.

The crewhouse back at MEA headquarters reveals what the work is all about. On top of the pop machine there's an example of poor pruning. There's the section of branch notched where it grew around a neutral line. The branch ends in charcoal where it hit the live wire and burst into flames.

Stefanski uses it as a visual aid to describe the effects of large quantities of electricity on a human being.

''It burns you like a microwave, from the inside out,'' Stefanski says matter-of-factly. ''The charred skin is an aftereffect. Then you burst into a ball of fire.''

Jardel has plenty of war stories, like being dropped off by a helicopter in the Talkeetna Mountains to do remote clearance during bear wake-up season. He and other crew members chain-sawed with .357-caliber Magnums slung over their backs, he said, looking around the whole time.

Crew activities tend to be popular with moose after a long winter. After a day or two of work by crews, the hungry ungulates learn that buzzing saws mean felled trees and juicy top branches within easy reach.

''They hear the saw start,'' Jardel said, ''and they come running.''

Back before MEA established a routine clearing schedule, staff members said, outages were common.

''I was amazed at how blase old-timers were'' about outages in the mid-1980s, Jardel said. Customers expected the power to be out about a week around Christmas and New Year's, and stockpiled wood and supplies.

Crewmembers tell about the old days when they found themselves on the wrong end of guns, getting yelled at by irate naked people, having people bring them plates of cookies and running across lush crops of marijuana growing under power lines.

Stefanski and the rest of the MEA clearing crew said there are two kinds of tree men: euc men (as in eucalyptus) and oak men. The former are thrash and slashers; the latter demonstrate the finest in horticultural artistry. A few crew members laughingly admit to being a bit of a blend of the two. Not Jardel, though.

Jardel, they said, is all oak man.

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