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To reduce fire risk, San Diego is airlifting palm trees out of one suburb

To reduce fire risk, San Diego is airlifting palm trees out of one suburb
Helicopter crews are doing a major thinning of non-native palm trees in the San Diego neighborhood of Tierrasanta. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Aiming to reduce wildfire risk and bolster native trees, conservation groups are using helicopters this week to remove 300 invasive palm trees from canyons in the San Diego community of Tierrasanta.

Crews, with help from the city of San Diego, began cutting down the palm trees Dec. 10. This week, they will move the trees by helicopter to the Sycamore Landfill each morning until they finish.

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“They put a choke cable onto the tree, and the helicopter lowers down a cable with a hook,” said Eric Bowlby, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Canyonlands.

The nonprofit hopes to bolster native trees such as coastal live oaks and willows, while also reducing significant wildfire risk posed by the palms.

“The palm trees have a giant veil of dead palm fronds, and they are unmaintained in a location like a canyon,” Bowlby said in a telephone interview. “It’s a tremendous amount of dry fuel on each one of these trees.”

Bowlby said unkempt palms in canyons can help wildfires spread.

“Should there be a fire, they burn like Roman candles,” he said, explaining that the flaming fronds are easily blown around by winds.

The project, which is taking place in Rueda Canyon, will be covered by a $250,000 state grant that San Diego Canyonlands secured with help from the San Diego River Conservancy.

A similar project was completed in 2014 in Shepherd Canyon, also in Tierrasanta. Crews removed 69 trees that time, Bowlby said.

This week’s Rueda Canyon project is the largest ever undertaken by San Diego Canyonlands, he said.

Future projects include Ruffin Canyon in Serra Mesa and Navajo Canyon near Adobe Falls Road.

Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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