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Cowlitz County PUD uses helicopter to trim trees due to climbing crew shortage

Tree trimming

A helicopter with a hanging saw blade trims hard-to-reach trees in Cowlitz County in July for the Cowlitz County Public Utilities District. 

A staffing shortage led the Cowlitz County Public Utilities District to trade human climbing crews for a helicopter with a saw blade this summer.

Trees that hit power lines due to reasons like high winds or overgrowth can cause outages. Contractors are typically hired to climb up trees to trim excess vegetation around lines, but this summer the PUD used a one-man helicopter to do the work.

At the PUD’s Sept. 14 meeting, Cowlitz PUD Operations Superintendent Gary Pardue said he recently scheduled the organization’s first climbing crew since 2019. The delay led the PUD to hire a service to trim roughly 2 miles around the Castle Rock to Vader power line in Olequa this summer.

A roughly 20-foot bar equipped with 24-inch saw blades hung from a helicopter and trimmed an estimated 80- to 100-foot trees July 27 and 28. Cowlitz PUD Public Relations and Communications Manager Alice Dietz said it was difficult for ground crews to reach this “cross country transmission line.”

Dietz said trees are trimmed every three years to prevent damage. Pardue said the plan is to trim all needed vegetation before winter, and trees are usually trimmed within 20 feet of lines.

Pardue said the helicopter service saved time and money. The PUD contractor Asplundh Tree Expert estimated a roughly four-member climbing crew would take eight months to accomplish what the helicopter did in two days, said Pardue. The PUD saved up to an estimated $288,000 he said, based on Asplundh’s estimates.

He said the air service was a safer option too. Last summer, Pardue said a cherry tree in Kalama split in half after crews climbed the line to trim it.

“If there’s something we can do to use technology and equipment to help make this easier and save a lot of money in the process, then I’m all for that,” Pardue said.

Pardue said vegetation around the hard-to-reach power lines between Carrols to Cardwell could also use the helicopter service. Dietz said the service will not replace their “primary method” of climbing crews.

“We see the helicopter method being an exception rather than the rule,” she said.

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