Waging War on Wildfires

Waging War on Wildfires


How cooperation with contractors and agencies combined with technology can reduce wildfire potential or severity

By Larry Lee, Avista Utilities; Iban Ocampolucero, CN Utility Consulting; and Steve Harris, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

This article was published in the September/October 2013 issue of Utility Arborist Newsline.

As utility vegetation management professionals, we are all aware that tree and power line related wildfires are a small percentage of the total number of fires during any given season. However, tree and power line related fires can be damaging because they tend to occur near populated areas, often with devastating results.

The challenge as utility vegetation managers is to determine how we can effectively and efficiently reduce the potential and/or severity of wildfires caused by our electric facilities, especially in the arid, forested regions of our country. Ultimately, there is no easy answer, and each utility must evaluate its own wildfire risks versus its tolerance for potential liability.

Wildfires often occur throughout the eastern region of Washington state to the Canadian border, especially during the late summer and early fall. According to Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), tree and power line conflicts caused 3.4 percent of the fires and burned 6,162 out of 121,247 forest acres statewide over the last five years.

Native high plains vegetation is part of eastern Washington’s charm, enhancing the beauty and quality of life in this part of the state. However, our dry forest, urban wild land environment can pose a significant fire hazard. The plant density and diversity provides an abundant source of fuel, and steep topography can encourage fires to spread quickly, often in areas difficult to access.

The predominant fuel types in the region include dense stands and thickets of Lodgepole and Ponderosa pine. Their resin and needles are especially susceptible to fire because of their ease of ignition and burning intensity. Once a fire establishes itself, fire brands from these fuels become airborne and ignite other combustibles ahead of the active fire area, which increases the rate and area of fire spread.

Compounding the situation, tree and power line initiated fires can occur during high wind events. The winds that can cause tree contact with power lines can also fan flames, causing the fire to spread rapidly with the potential for significant damage.

A historic wild fire event in northeast Washington occurred on October 16, 1991 when this region experienced a combination of extreme conditions that led to numerous fires. The area had experienced five years of lower than average precipitation, and the forest fuels were exceptionally dry after no precipitation for 41 consecutive days. Early spring rains had produced an abundant crop of grasses that were now tinder dry, further adding to the available fuels.

Wind gusts exceeding 60 miles per hour swept across the region. As the winds intensified, trees began to fail. According to DNR, these failures sparked more than 90 separate wild land fires in Spokane, Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan, and Pend Oreille counties. One life was lost, along with 114 homes and countless other structures in the aptly named “Fire Storm.”

Wildfires broke out early this season throughout the western United States. Recent news reports state approximately 75,000 acres have already burned this year in New Mexico and Arizona, and Colorado has lost nearly 100,000 acres in more than 280 fires. The Colorado losses are more than three times what had burned by this time in the 2000 season, which was the worst in a half-century.

Colorado’s “Black Forest” fire has burned 15,500 acres and nearly 500 homes. Officials report that total costs for this fire alone are at $5.2 million so far, not including property damage. Other past fires have been costly to electric utilities, with recent settlements of more than $50 million for two wild fires in Northern California and over $650 million for two power line caused fires in southern California. Although it has been more than 20 years since northeast Washington’s Fire Storm, it remains a watershed event. Much has changed since then, including technology and a new collaboration that is bringing a fresh approach in Washington in the war on wildfires.

In January 2012, Avista Utilities, headquartered in Spokane, Washington, began the first phase of a new program to bring field technology to its Distribution Vegetation Management Department by contracting with CN Utility Consulting (CNUC). Under the program, CNUC is inventorying, assessing and prescribing vegetation management along Avista’s more than 7,800 miles of overhead electric distribution system.

As CNUC’s consulting utility foresters (CUFs) began collecting vegetation data with Terra Spectrum Technologies’ (TST) PlannerVM software on their field-proven tablet computers, Avista’s vegetation management team considered what other valuable information could be gathered in this “boots on the ground, span by span” system wide evaluation.

An existing partnership between Avista’s team and local wildfire expert Steve Harris, DNR Northeast Regional Steve Harris, DNR regional manager of landowner assistance manager (right) leads a field training session on fuel loading and fire behavior with four CNUC consulting utility foresters (left). F O C U S : W O R K I N G W I T H September–October 2013 Page 21 Landowner Assistance Manager, led to the next logical step. That was to have the CUFs collect and record additional site-specific information regarding fire potential (fuel loading and forest health) and fire behavior (slope, aspect, and prevailing winds), along with severity ratings (access difficulty and distance to nearest fire first responders).

Sharing this new site-specific data with DNR and combining it with their fire history (wildfires tend to repeat in certain areas) and forest health information called “bugs and crud” will eventually lead to a system wide geospatial mapping layer that prioritizes fire potential areas in Avista’s service area. This fire prioritization information can then be used to create new work planning matrixes that determine which distribution circuits, or parts of circuits, need field assessment and risk tree mitigation work performed more frequently, perhaps even annually before fire season. Harris has been instrumental in this relationship, from sharing DNR information regarding fire start history and forest health data to providing training sessions to Avista’s vegetation management team, CNUC staff, and Asplundh Tree Expert Co. employees on fuel loading, fire behavior, and safety precautions. The training sessions led to a prioritization worksheet used to help determine the most pertinent fire and fuel factors and their relevance for each site.

At Avista’s annual Distribution Vegetation Management’s Team Training Day on March 15, 2013 the utility rolled out its second phase of this program by bringing “technology to the troops.” The foremen from Avista’s long-term line clearance contractor Asplundh were introduced to their first company on-board computers.

Asplundh’s tree crews now have tablet computers with TST’s RealTimeVM, which delivers the prescribed work packets from the CUFs’ PlannerVM. Once they download the circuit information onto their computers, they have specific directions, access routes, GPS points, poles, hardware condition, work prescriptions, and extra precautions or customer requests needed to get the job done quickly, efficiently and safely.

With the technology pieces in place, the time seemed appropriate to adopt a more robust approach to the risk tree mitigation part of Avista’s integrated vegetation management program. This new approach is based on the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) Utility Best Management Practices – Tree Risk Assessment and Abatement for FireProne States and Provinces in the Western Region of North America.

Avista’s partnership with DNR, CNUC, Asplundh and TST brings a fresh perspective to managing vegetation near utility lines in Washington state with a stronger focus on wildfire prevention. This collaborative effort, teamed with technological advances provides a new tactic in the war on wildfires in northeast Washington.

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