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Tree trouble: Why vegetation management is 'critical' to preventing power outages during winter weather, especially in northwest Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thousands of people were dealing with power outages on Friday, with a large amount of trouble spots reported in northwest Austin. Austin Energy said areas like this one, with large numbers of trees, were "more susceptible" to outages.

According to the company on Friday afternoon, more than 200 different outages affected more than 11,000 people. Several hours later, they addressed about 14 different outages, bringing the number of affected customers down to 7,000.

"We know this is frustrating," Jennifer Heber with Austin Energy said. "With this storm, we are seeing ice weighing heavily on these trees causing limbs to lean on or break on top of power lines which is sometimes leading to outages."

It's an issue they've been trying to address in recent years. In 2019, they renewed their efforts to invest in what is called "vegetation management" and even got approval to hire more removal crews just last December.

"We are still trying to catch up from say, 15 years or so of overgrowth of vegetation around town," said Kim Doyal, with the company.

District 10 Councilmember Alison Alter noted the city allocated $10 million in funding for the vegetation management processes in the last budget cycle. Still, she said it's a slow moving process, which is why nearly a fourth of her district dealt with some sort of power problem during this winter storm.

"In my district, there are restrictions on when you can cut trees. You can only cut trees a portion of the year," she said. "Some of that comes from endangered species; some of it comes from preventing damage to the trees."

She said those restrictions were important, but they account for the lag in headway on managing the vegetation situation, even after so many resources were allocated to the issue last year.

  • For more details on the tree pruning process in Austin, click here.

Austin Energy asked for patience, as their crews work to fix each outage.

"During a major storm, it is not uncommon to have several hundred repair locations — and the crews must drive to each repair location," Heber said. "We strive to restore power to our customers as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible. This work is often quite hazardous. We place the highest priority on the safety of our crews and our customers."

  • Massive tree takes down power line outside Walgreens on FM 620 Road in Austin (KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)
  • Massive tree takes down power line outside Walgreens on FM 620 Road in Austin (KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)
  • Massive tree takes down power line outside Walgreens on FM 620 Road in Austin (KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)
  • Massive tree takes down power line outside Walgreens on FM 620 Road in Austin (KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)

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