Getting Ahead of the Blaze

Co-ops use a variety of methods to mitigate wildfire threats

By Erin Kelly

burned down structures in woods
Consumers Power Inc. in Oregon recently dealt with multiple extreme fires that devastated the utility’s service area, resulting in evacuations.
Photo Courtesy of Consumers Power Inc

As the threat of devastating wildfires continues in the West, electric cooperatives are strengthening their efforts to reduce the risk to their communities.

Many co-ops are aggressively clearing vegetation from power lines, developing higher-tech ways to monitor their systems for problems, and, in extreme cases where wildfires are raging, conducting temporary public safety power shutoffs to prevent sparking new blazes.

David Gottula, general manager of Okanogan County Electric Cooperative in Winthrop, Washington, says it’s important for electric co-ops to be proactive. Like much of the West, the territory served by the small, 3,000-member co-op is experiencing a “new normal” of longer, drier, more dangerous fire seasons. The co-op contracted with an outside forester in 2019 to survey its lines and the trees outside of its easements that posed a threat.

“That ended up being one of the best decisions we’ve made,” David says.

In Montana, a new drone will soon help Missoula Electric Cooperative inspect lines and identify weak spots in connections, says Joe Smith, the co-op’s chief operating officer. An infrared camera attached to the drone can detect the heat that builds up at bad connections.

The drone will be especially helpful in inspecting lines on the sides of cliffs and in other areas difficult for line crews to reach. It’s just one part of the co-op’s new fire mitigation plan—the first in Montana, Joe says.

Some electric co-ops also turn off reclosers during fire season. A recloser is an automatic high-voltage electric switch that operates much like a circuit breaker in your home. When a household breaker trips, it will remain off until it is manually reset. A recloser will test the electric line by automatically closing to see if the problem has been removed. If the problem was only temporary, the recloser will stay closed and power will remain on. This operation is sometimes seen as a ‘blink’ at your home.

To reduce the risk of fire, OCEC and many other co-ops place some reclosers on non- reclose mode so the breaker will kick in and the line will be de-energized until crews can manually inspect the line for problems. This could cause longer, more frequent outages in some areas during fire season, David says.

Douglas Electric Cooperative in Roseburg has an extensive fire management plan that includes supplying each line crew with a 500-gallon firefighting wagon, fire extinguishers, and water cans to help suppress flames until firefighters arrive. Photo Courtesy of Douglas Electric Cooperative

“We hope our members understand that the benefits of reduced fire risk outweigh the increase in possible outages,” he says.

Douglas Electric Cooperative in Roseburg has an extensive fire management plan that includes buying each line crew a 500-gallon firefighting wagon, fire extinguishers, and water cans to help suppress flames until firefighters arrive. The crews take this equipment with them everywhere during fire season, says General Manager Keith Brooks.

In Western Oregon, where wildfires have been devastating rural communities, the general manager and incident commander at Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative in Eugene made the difficult decision September 8 to conduct public safety power shutoffs in the forested areas of their system, “rending nearly all of our residential consumers powerless during our high wind, high temperatures, low humidity conditions,” says Pam Spettel, the co-op’s communications and legislative representative.

“Several small communities in our county burned to the ground,” she says. “We were very lucky. The sentiment of our members was generally favorable to the PSPS and grew more so through the week as they saw what was happening around us. At this point, we have received hundreds of messages of support for the action from members of our tiny little co-op."

You Can Help

The public can help reduce the risks of wildfires. AccuWeather website offers the following tips:

  • If you see an unattended fire, immediately call 911 or your local fire department.
  • Report any trees that appear to be too close to power lines, and keep your own trees and bushes regularly trimmed.
  • Completely extinguish all campfires and fire pits after use. Follow all local ordinances to make sure burning a fire is allowed.
  • Never throw cigarettes outside a moving vehicle or on the ground.
  • Only use fireworks in clear areas with no woods nearby.
  • Monitor the risk of forest fires in your local area.