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‘It’s absolutely insane’: Swaths of trees cut after Oregon fires amid allegations of mismanagement

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 5/1/2021 Ted Sickinger, oregonlive.com

As the hazardous tree-removal program overseen by the Oregon Department of Transportation goes into high gear after last fall’s devastating wildfires, many of Oregon’s most scenic and beloved areas are being transformed into post-apocalyptic stretches of roadside clearcuts, gargantuan log piles and slash.

“A person really has to come and look at it to get a sense,” said Ron Carmickle, mayor of Gates, which was ravaged in the Labor Day fires that raged through the Santiam Canyon and is now seeing heavy post-fire cutting on both public and private property.

“The scale of it … " he said. “It’s absolutely insane. You have to see it.”

State officials estimate there are 142,000 hazard trees along roadways, rivers and on private properties burned in the fires. The tree removal program, being carried out by several contractors monitored by the Florida-based disaster recovery firm CDR Maguire, has already removed some 29,000.

But a growing number of arborists, landowners and environmental advocates are concerned that CDR Maguire is mismanaging the tree-removal program. They also say the state is failing to oversee the firm, which was hired under a $70 million contract to monitor the logging and debris removal and ensure the state is reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Between CDR Maguire and its contractors, hundreds of millions of dollars will ultimately be spent on removing hazard trees and fire debris, a massive, lucrative project for a small set of disaster recovery firms that regularly swoop in and profit off the cleanup of natural disasters around the country. The work is ultimately funded largely by the federal government, with 75% of it eligible for reimbursement by FEMA.

Critics claim CDR Maguire has little to no experience with projects of this size and nature, and that many of the arborists and foresters working on the project – the key players in deciding which trees stay or go – lack the certifications and experience required by the state in its original proposal. They say the firm’s standards for hazard trees keep changing, with far too many trees, some of them green and posing no immediate hazard, being tagged for removal. Critics also say that raises the prospect that FEMA, if it audits the work, could deny reimbursement for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of work by the contractors, sticking the state with the bill.

Some of those concerns, first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, will be aired at a hearing this afternoon of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee, and at a hearing Friday in the House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery. Today’s hearing will see two 30-minute panels, one with officials from ODOT and CDR Maguire, and the second with arborists and others who have expressed reservations about the program.

The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke with eight contractors who worked on the recent tree-removal projects, providing new details and alleging widespread problems at sites across the state. They described chaotic work environments with limited oversight, one where tree-removal guidance changed regularly, trees were overmarked, and the overwhelming focus seemed to be on billable hours rather than a surgical harvest of truly risky trees.

Both CDR Maguire and ODOT say those concerns are unfounded. Carlos Duart, chief executive of CDR Maguire, says in the last three years alone, his company has managed about $1 billion in disaster recovery – with hurricanes, stumps, hazardous trees, hazardous materials – and has a 99% reimbursement rate from FEMA. He also insisted that CDR Maguire followed all contractual obligations, including the use of certified arborists and foresters inspecting trees.

Mason Bruce & Girard, a Portland-based subcontractor to CDR Maguire performing quality control for the arborist work, echoed those comments.

“MB&G was very careful to hire locally qualified candidates who had the requisite years of experience performing relevant work,” Erin VanDehey, the company’s project manager, said in a statement. “We only sourced candidates who meet the criteria” specified by the state.

Tony Andersen, a spokesman for ODOT, said agency officials are aware of the ongoing trauma to people in fire-ravaged communities and empathize with the range of reactions that arise from a dramatically changed post-fire landscape. He said any reports received that contractors were over-tagging trees for removal have been dealt with and two staff have been removed from the project. But he said it was difficult to speak to general claims being made.

Like any emergency response situation, urgency was key to protect people who live and travel in the fire corridors, Andersen said. The state may also feel some urgency, observers say, because trees that aren’t hazardous today could become so over the next three to five years, when federal reimbursement for their removal will no longer be available.

Andersen suggested that the claims of over-cutting are part of a misinformation campaign being coordinated by Cascadia Wildlands, one of more than 20 conservation groups that have organized protests against the post-fire logging. He also questioned the motivation and credibility of employees who have left the job and now claim there are problems.

Dylan Plummer, an organizer for Cascadia Wildlands, said his organization supports selectively removing standing dead trees that pose a direct hazard to motorists, but that indiscriminate logging authorized by ODOT has been rushed and completely lacking in transparency.

He added that Andersen’s claim was “a pretty wild allegation considering the number of organizations objecting to it and the number of internal whistleblowers.”

One of those whistleblowers is Chris Vaughan, a certified arborist from Bend who has submitted written testimony to the Senate committee. Vaughan told The Oregonian/OregonLive he’d been involved in fire response work in California and said he was eager to get involved in recovery efforts at home.

He was hired as an arborist on Feb. 10 and worked for a month on tree removal for the Riverside, Beachie Creek and Holiday Farm fires. From day one, he said, it was evident how disorganized CDR Maguire was, and how its overall emphasis was on billable hours and getting bodies in the field.

Vaughan said there was no evident management structure. The lead arborist on the project, Tom Ford, had already left by the time he arrived. A second lead arborist has since left the project.

Vaughan said safety culture was nonexistent. Tree marking was often extremely aggressive, and changes to “the scope,” or guidelines on what constituted a hazard tree, were erratic and frequent, sometimes reversed in a day, he said. As time went on, he said, the assessment of which trees were actually hazardous became more subjective and less scientific.

Vaughan acknowledges that he didn’t have the five years of post-fire experience in the Pacific Northwest required by the state, and said he’d be surprised if more than one or two arborists on the entire project did. He says many of the out-of-state employees he worked with had never been to the region, never worked in the mountains, were provided with minimal training, and couldn’t differentiate between various species of trees and how they react to fire.

CDR Maguire’s chief executive, however, insisted that “all our arborists have the five years or are foresters” with the necessary qualifications. Duart said the company’s processes, procedures and quality assurance will make sure the state is reimbursed by FEMA. He said safety is always the top priority, particularly where there is heavy equipment and natural hazards. He said the company provides safety equipment and training to all employees and said it had an extremely low ratio of workers compensation claims over the years, with no accidents in Oregon.

Vaughan says he resigned in March, worried that he was walking the line on his professional code of ethics. He said he came forward reluctantly, aware he might be blackballed from future job opportunities for speaking out. The last straw, he alleged, was that drug use was rampant and not being addressed.

“A lot of people were hoping CDR would get kicked off the project,” he said.

Duart said the company had a zero drug use policy. “If we found out about that it would be dealt with immediately,” he said.

Brian Eubanks tells a similar story to Vaughan. An arborist from Nevada, he said he and his partner signed on early and were two of the first CDR arborists, working on tree removal efforts near Lincoln City, along the McKenzie and the North Umpqua River in southern Oregon. Eubanks said he’s worked fires for years in California, but that his partner had only received his arborist certification a month before they started work.

“It was a (expletive) show, bro. Anything these guys say, it’s probably too kind,” he said, referring to others concerned about CDR Maguire’s management of the project. “It was enough for us to leave, and we were clearing $13,000 a month. That was our take home. It was so bad that the money they were giving us wasn’t enough.”

Eubanks claims that when they first arrived on Archie Creek, there were non-arborists marking trees, and they started pulling tags from trees that had been improperly marked. The work environment was chaotic, he said, with no continuity to the crews and little understanding among field staff of basic concepts guiding the tree marking.

Eubanks said access to the data-collection system that documents each tree being marked as hazardous, for later reimbursement by FEMA, was wide open. Other employees, he claims, were inputting trees to be cut under his name and arborist certification on days he wasn’t working.

“The people of Oregon deserve better. This was mismanaged from the beginning,” he said.

Duart acknowledges that this is the largest wildfire project his company has ever worked on, but insists it has done similar wildfire work in the past. He declined, however, to provide specific examples.

“As for reports of project improprieties you bring up, I have checked with our senior team staff, HR and legal departments and we are not aware of any of these instances,” he said. “Employees can report suspected violations anonymously to our HR and legal department if they don’t want to approach project personnel. If those were to occur, they would be addressed immediately by upper management.”

Meanwhile, a state committee that initially evaluated CDR Maguire’s experience before handing out a contract to the company noted its lack of experience with debris removal. Two of five evaluators called attention to that shortcoming in its bid.

CDR Maguire’s experience was later raised in a bid protest by Tetra Tech, the second-place finisher in ODOT’s original request for proposals for tree and debris removal. The California company, with some $3 billion in annual revenues, has been involved in post-fire recovery projects in California, including the 2018 Camp fire, which destroyed 19,000 structures and killed 85 people.

The basis of the protest was largely CDR Maguire’s apparent lack of experience with debris removal, a specialized environmental-remediation process involving repeated site assessments, soil testing and air monitoring for hazardous materials with the potential for liability claims against ODOT and the contractor. But it also noted that CDR “has managed very few, and limited, post-fire tree removal projects” and its experience was typically limited to an auditing capacity, reviewing and verifying documentation for FEMA reimbursement.

“The work here requires a very different skill set from that which comprises the great majority of CDR’s experience – white collar in-office auditing of FEMA and FHWA claims,” Tetra Tech wrote in its appeal. “CDR’s focus is on ‘monitoring the monitor’ – the firm has done little, if any, field monitoring, much less has it conducted environmental assessments or remediation in the post-fire context.”

The protest was not sustained.

Sarah Lee, an arborist from Crescent City, California, said she was briefly employed by CDR Maguire in December but left when she couldn’t come to terms over holiday vacation. She has since been hired by AshBritt, a disaster-recovery firm that was awarded two debris removal contracts in Lane and Jackson counties that also involve removing hazard trees marked by CDR Maguire and its contractors.

Florida-based AshBritt, like other contractors, faces a potential penalty of $2,000 a tree if it is found to have cut down trees that don’t meet the definition of a hazard tree, and potential lawsuits from property owners. The company hired Lee to evaluate trees marked for removal on dozens of private properties to see if they posed a real threat.

Lee said her analysis found that more than 90 percent of the trees initially tagged for removal by CDR Maguire contractors on the properties she examined in Lane County posed no imminent threat.

“My recommendation to AshBritt is that they remove no further trees until further evaluation to determine if they’re consistent with the scope,” she said. “On some of these properties, every tree was marked, 90 percent of trees were marked, and 10 percent weren’t. The percentages should have been reversed.”

Matt Allen, a Portland-based arborist hired by Mason Bruce & Girard, said he was hired because he’s a master arborist, with an additional qualification in risk assessment from the International Society of Arborists. He says there were no daily work orders on the Archie Creek fire, no recognizable scope to the work.

“There was (a message delivered), you just need to be out there tagging trees, the more trees you tag, the more they can start cutting and the more you can bill,” he said. “It seemed to be a very rushed process where the aim was to harvest as much as possible, before anyone found out.”

— Ted Sickinger; tsickinger@oregonian.com; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger

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