Staying Safe While Performing Line Clearance in California Snow

A string of severe snow storms affecting California this winter resulted in a statewide snowpack that on March 3rd measured 177% of the daily average. The previous record for a single day was achieved in 1969, when the snowpack reached 263% of the daily average. So, as of March 3rd, this is the deepest the snowpack has been in more than 50 years.

As for California’s drought, “We could not be more fortunate to have had this kind of precipitation after three very punishing years of dry and drought conditions,” states Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). After years of below-average snowpack and a drought that dried out reservoirs and stoked wildfires, there may finally be some relief.

In addition to bringing rain and snow, recent storms were colder than usual for California. According to Michael Anderson, a state meteorologist with DWR, this caused snow to fall in areas where it normally doesn’t, presenting challenges to residents and, of course, working tree crews.

The community of Truckee, in the Lake Tahoe-basin area, has received more than its fair share of snow this season. Cut crews in the town worked through most if not all the storms, only pausing periodically to dig their trucks out, with snow often burying the tops of work vehicles.

Line-clearance crews had to deal with deep snows in California in March that made it difficult for them to work safely. All photos courtesy of the author.

Dangers of cold

Contrary to popular belief, tree work, and particularly line clearance, does not cease during the winter. Branch breaks and tree collapse both can be caused by snow and ice.

Snowy scenery can be breathtaking to look at, but it also can come with snowstorms that are somewhat treacherous, especially for climbing arborists working aloft in a tree or on an aerial lift. Working in inclement weather is likewise incredibly stressful, because it’s easy to get stuck in a snowfall or slip on ice. Moreover, snow can quickly accumulate and halt work on days when it snows nonstop.

Line-clearance crews had to deal with deep snows in California in March that made it difficult for them to work safely. All photos courtesy of the author.

Slips and falls

Working in the snow is considerably riskier. Winter may make surfaces extremely wet and slippery, which makes getting vehicles to work locations more hazardous. Tree workers also are more likely to fall and sustain injuries when the weather is bad.

There is the added risk of crews having to manually remove snow piles off the tops of their trucks. This presents an additional fall hazard. The tops of those bucket trucks can be very slippery. It is a good idea, as well as an OSHA requirement, to tie in anytime a worker is working 6 feet or more off the ground.
Even with the help of snowplows clearing yards, there is still the extra manual labor required to completely dig vehicles and equipment out from under the snow. Having covered truck ports with high-enough clearances for aerial-lift trucks would be ideal, but is not always an option.

P31 Enterprises Inc. crewmembers working in the snow include, from left, Alex Bravo, Marvin Henriquez, Yoni Henriquez and Carlos Henriquez.


As if tree work wasn’t challenging enough, climbing arborists are brave and tough enough to take on the challenge of working in freezing, snowy, rainy and wintry conditions to get the job done. Many tree-work contractors have figured out how to get by, even in sub-zero temperatures.

Yes, employees can protect themselves somewhat by dressing in layers of warm clothing. But there is always a danger that a worker will develop hypothermia, as some days are colder than others.
The risk of hypothermia while performing arborist work in the winter is magnified by the amount of perspiration workers can generate, for instance, digging out those trucks. Because sweat lowers body temperature, it can make workers more susceptible. All tree workers need to try to stay dry and remain aware of their body temperature and know how to recognize hypothermia symptoms.

Staying hydrated is equally important while working in frigid temperatures as it is in the heat of summer. The body utilizes water to optimize the body’s temperature-regulation functions and stabilize core body temperature. The problem is that, when we are out in the cold, we rarely want to drink or feel the need to drink water. Make sure to continue to stock tree crews with enough water. Encourage one another to drink by fetching water for your fellow crew members in between tasks or on breaks.

The risk of hypothermia is magnified by the amount of perspiration workers can generate, for instance, when digging out the trucks.

Wind threat

The wind is another factor that might increase risk, particularly in the winter when the wind is typically stronger. A climbing arborist, tree feller or ground worker could easily be caught off guard by a strong wind. Therefore, crew management should always check the weather forecast for any potential high winds or other erratic weather patterns.

Electrical hazards

In addition to the hazards described above, which might apply to all outdoor trades, we have hazards that pose a particularly serious threat to climbing arborists. One of those threats for a line-clearance arborist is potentially coming into contact with power lines.

As a first precaution, Minimal Approach Distances (MAD) to conductors should be increased when working in snow, just as they would be when working in rain or even heavy mist. Snowflakes, as well as water droplets, can bridge the air gap enough for an arc flash to occur. Adding the extra discretionary distance is highly recommended for added safety.

Snow-laden branches pose an increased risk of breaking or leaning down toward a power line. The potential for a good amount of snow falling from branches above an arborist making a precision cut with a chain saw, for example, can have a ripple effect.

Tire chains

Lastly, snow chains are usually required on aerial-lift trucks in snowy weather. They must be a heavy-duty, sturdier grade than regular chains, which can easily be ripped to shreds driving and staging at various work locations throughout the day. These also are pricier, and it is beneficial if they are maintained by replacing links or segments as they break.

Snow chains are especially important when staging on sloping streets during active snow or residual-ice events. The operating boom can more readily destabilize the truck even with good outrigger placement. Snow chains help to halt this play or movement.

Snow chains are usually required on aerial-lift trucks in snowy weather. They must be a heavy-duty, sturdier grade than regular chains.


Regardless of the hazards, tree workers are essential members of emergency response teams during critical snow events, such as those recently experienced in the mountain communities of El Dorado County, which is part of the Northern Sierras in California. Snow-drift levels rose as high as the communication lines on some line segments. Power lines downed by falling trees necessitated the need for tree crews to be on call to respond to emergencies such as these to help restore power and clear access roads that otherwise would be a danger for trapped residents.

We are grateful for our line-clearance crews who work through snow, sleet and sometimes freezing rain. Kudos to our arborist snow warriors working up in El Dorado County and elsewhere in California this winter. Stay safe and warm out there, and let’s hope for a less-eventful spring!

Carlos Ramirez, CTSP and ISA Certified Arborist, is in charge of field-site safety with P31 Enterprises Inc., a Greentek Company, a four-year TCIA member company based in Oroville, California.

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