OAKHURST — “We have a lot of people working in this area and really want to be involved in the community,” says Chriso Lee, director of operations for ArborWorks Inc., a tree care company that in just the past few years has become one of the area’s largest employers.
Every day, the company sends dozens of crews out around the county and throughout the mountain communities to trim vegetation and tree limbs and remove dead trees near PG&E power lines.
ArborWorks has been in the Oakhurst area since 2015 and became the prime utility vegetation management contractor for PG&E’s Yosemite Division in January 2019, so it’s no wonder their crews, trucks and heavy equipment have become increasingly visible around the area.
At the company’s massive staging yard in Oakhurst, next to True Value Home Center off Highway 49, there are rows and rows of grapple trucks, bucket trucks, chippers, skid steers — all specialized equipment made to chop, grind, lift or cut just about any kind of tree.
One example is called the company’s telescoping grapple saw or TGS truck, which allows a single ground operator to cut tree tops more than 100 feet off the ground, safely performing some of the most dangerous jobs utilizing remote control. The TGS trucks are an example of what Lee refers to as “NLP” or “non life-powered” technology.
“We’ll be seeing more and more of this as we look for ways to reduce and eliminate human exposure to the many life-threatening hazards in our industry,” Lee says. “If we can do the work without endangering human life, that’s our aim.”
ArborWorks has been performing tree care for over 20 years in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and other states. Previously headquartered in the Bay Area, the company made the decision to move their primary headquarters to Oakhurst in 2017 to more fully support vegetation management in the Yosemite Division.
The company operates out of several, low-profile business offices around town and currently has about 400 employees — “most local to the greater Yosemite area,” Lee says.
The company could be expanding soon.
“Our workforce tends to ebb and flow with the seasons and our scope of work. In the coming months, we could be looking to fill as many as 300 to 400 new jobs.”
ArborWorks pays between $15 to $35 per hour based on experience and classification. The company also has salaried positions available for management and special project personnel in the range of $60,000 to $120,000 per year.
Not all of the potential new hires would be stationed locally, Lee says.
“Some would be distributed throughout California” depending, in part, on the company’s evolving scope of work for PG&E and other agencies.
ArborWorks also has staging yards in Mariposa, Merced, Sonora and the Central and North Coasts, almost everywhere around the state where forests have been devastated by tree mortality from the prolonged drought and recent bark beetle infestation.
Before relocating to Oakhurst, ArborWorks specialized in commercial and residential tree work as well as disaster response work in other states. Since moving to eastern Madera County, Lee says the company’s focus now is primarily on its utility vegetation management operations for PG&E.
Lee says the company has a “huge arsenal” of equipment that it deploys daily throughout the area.
“Our teams can get pretty spread out,” he says. “It’s even a challenge for us to keep track of them at times and with the struggle of poor cellphone reception throughout the Yosemite division, we’ve turned to GPS tracking for all of our vehicles and equipment.”
Lee, who grew up in Tehachapi, moved together with his family to Oakhurst almost four years ago.
“We’ve really enjoyed getting to know and become part of the mountain community,” he says. “As one of Oakhurst’s largest companies, we’re very aware of our responsibility to be good neighbors and community partners. That is the primary reason we don’t do private tree work in the area, out of respect to the other tree companies operating here who we have a great working relationship with.”
ArborWorks also distributes wood to area senior citizens.
“There’s a lot of good wood that gets ground up and hauled down the mountain,” Lee says, “and we want people to be able to benefit by having access to it to heat there homes.”
Lee says ArborWorks requires its crews to “always have fire fighting equipment within 25 feet of where they are working. We try to be very proactive. Our crews are safety-certified and trained in first aid and CPR and we’ve got quite a few employees who are former paramedics, EMTs, military medics and veterans.”
Even though they are based now in Oakhurst, ArborWorks has crews working as far north as the Oregon border. Lee says the company had nearly 500 people working until recently in Paradise and is just starting to do some work in the Medford, Oregon, area.
“The need for quality vegetation management to protect electrical and other infrastructure is not only necessary but it’s also of paramount importance in preventing a catastrophic fire from taking place in our Sierra communities,” Lee says. “So our crews are constantly trying to work with communities and with individual land owners to ensure that proper clearance standards are achieved.”
“A lot of property owners have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to utility tree work,” Lee admits. “So when our crews are out performing this hazardous work, we try to go above and beyond if at all possible.”
Still, some residents have been uncooperative when an ArborWorks crew show up to clear trees and vegetation away from power lines on private property.
“The potential for a fire to start if a tree or even a branch comes down on a power line is huge, especially during fire season,” Lee says. “But we’re still fighting an accumulated negative image” for vegetation management among some local property owners.
Deputy John Grayson of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office confirms Lee’s statement.
“We have been dealing with some complaints and concerns from citizens regarding the tree work,” Grayson says. “When local residents contact us and protest the work the company is compelled to do under their arrangement with PG&E, I tell them, ‘You can cooperate and let them cut down the tree or I can send deputies over there.'”
In most cases, Lee says the work his employees are doing to mitigate fire risk is much appreciated.
“Fire is our primary concern,” he says. “As many crews as we have in the field, sometimes they will be the first to spot a flare-up and will start trying to put it out even before the fire crews arrive.”
“We’re very proud to have such an amazing local workforce comprised of our friends and neighbors right here in Oakhurst,” Lee says.
One example of ArborWorks’ civic involvement is the company’s sponsorship of local North Fork resident Nate Hodges, the 10-time champion of the annual North Fork Loggers Jamboree who is poised to win the STIHL Timber series this year.
“We couldn’t be more proud to stand behind this hard working and dedicated father as he represents our community in a true hero’s fashion,” Lee says. “We also are currently looking for different ways to support groups and individuals. Our aim is to be a powerful and positive force for the betterment of our local community.”