As California Wildfire Season Looms, Finding Tree Trimmers Is a Big Problem

The state’s largest power provider is racing to cut down or trim millions of trees before fire season, fueling a nationwide hunt to find workers willing to do dangerous work for pay starting at around $15 an hour

OAKHURST, Calif. — Pacific Gas & Electric has a big problem. Its equipment keeps coming into contact with dry trees and shrubs and starting devastating wildfires. So the company is scrambling to trim or cut down hundreds of thousands of trees across its vast Northern California territory.

But it has another problem: finding people to do that work.

Beyond the tight labor market, there is the challenge of enlisting a certain kind of worker for the difficult and dangerous job. To trim trees well, especially the 200-footers in the Sierra Nevada forests, contractors must be strong and agile, and able to handle fear and adrenaline surges.

When all goes well, “it’s like Cirque du Soleil up in the trees,” said Jose Mercado, founder of the Hispanic Arborist Association, who climbed trees professionally for more than two decades near Los Angeles. “You’re in the best physical condition of your life.”

When things go wrong, the consequences can be deadly. Since 2017, the Labor Department has tracked 127 deaths related to tree work nationally, including 20 in California. Among the top causes of injury or death are strikes by branches, electrocution and falls.

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