North Fork of the Blackfoot River

MEC’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan

Posted: July 1, 2021

The Cooperative’s Approach To Wildfire Prevention

The Western United States has experienced some of the most devastating wildfires in the nation’s history. In 2017, the wildfire season brought unique challenges for the state of Montana. Not only was it exceptionally hot and dry, over a longer period of time, but the fires burned across the entire state. A record 2,420 fires burned over 1.4 million acres that year, making it the most destructive fire season to date. As we enter fire season, it’s important to understand the prevention methods your Cooperative has in place.

Wildfire mitigation plays an essential role in Missoula Electric Cooperative’s (MEC’s) operational practices. The Co-op’s existing policies, programs and procedures directly or indirectly manage or reduce the risk of system-caused wildfires. Over the years, MEC has adopted fire mitigation programs to adjust to the increasing threat of wildfires. Furthermore, the Co-op has adopted technologies and improved operational practices to further diminish the potential for ignitions and effectively respond if the need arises. Last year, the Cooperative took wildfire mitigation a step further, and proactively created a Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP). Although not mandated by the state, MEC felt that a comprehensive WMP was essential, as wildfire occurrences continue to rise in the Northwest. Chief Operating Officer (COO), Joe Smith, who was the lead on the design and execution of the WMP agrees, “It’s imperative for MEC to have a Wildfire Mitigation Plan because we are in one of the most fire-prone, fuel-dense areas in the United States.”

The WMP is a comprehensive document that outlines MEC’s ongoing efforts to mitigate wildfire ignitions through the implementation of various operational and maintenance strategies. Simply put, the WMP helps the Co-Op analyze and address potential risk factors when it comes to wildfires.

The plan also acts as a guide to help leadership prioritize where the Operations team exerts efforts, starting first with the areas of greatest risk.

The creation of the Wildfire Mitigation Plan was essential. As the plan was developed, there were a handful of key objectives to consider and understand.

Protect Public Safety
The safety of our members, their communities and our beautiful state is not only a priority, but also a responsibility. Adhering to the priorities and programs outlined in the Wildfire Mitigation Plan is a step towards prevention and a good measure of public safety and protection.

Minimize Wildfire Risk
There are a few ways in which wildfire can impact our system. Equipment failure can occur during its service life, even with routine maintenance and inspection. For example, internal defects, that are not visible or predictable, can be the cause of destructive equipment failure resulting in sparks. Similarly, the failure of components can result in wire failure and wire-to-ground contact. Another risk is foreign contact from wildlife, vegetation and third-party equipment. Lastly, vehicle impact is a risk when they come in contact with a power pole. The goal of the WMP is to identify and provide strategic, prioritized prevention measures for each of these risk factors.

Effective Communication and Outreach
MEC’s service territory is expansive – our territory spans four national forests, seven counties and two states. To create the WMP, MEC sought input and comment from multiple agencies. These agencies include the Lolo and Flathead National Forests, US Forest Service, Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, Montana Statewide Office of Emergency Management, Montana Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management – Missoula, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Montana Disaster Emergency Service (DES). It was important to seek input from parties that MEC might require support or partnership from should a wildfire occur. These agencies helped to outline responsible parties, emergency contacts and procedures. The final WMP was reviewed by a 3rd party engineering firm, to ensure it was comprehensive and actionable.

Be Proactive
Published in 2020, MEC was the first utility in the state of Montana to issue a Wildfire Mitigation Plan. The Co-op’s five-year plan was developed to be consistent with industry best practices. While WMP regulations are under development and vary by state, the plans in general, are likely to direct utilities to develop operational policies and practices to prevent, prepare for and respond to wildfire events.

When speaking with Joe, who has consulted many local utilities on this topic, he urged, “Anyone in a fire-prone area, like much of the Western United States, should have one. We are fuel-heavy and dry, with an abundance of things to burn – trees, grasses, sagebrush, you name it.”

Documented Vegetation Management Program
MEC has an aggressive Vegetation Management Program, which seeks to inspect 50% of our system each year. System inspection is critical because our crews need to understand what we’re working with. Trees and vegetation are trimmed or removed immediately in urgent cases and/or if there’s less than two-years of line-clearance.

To work more efficiently, MEC brought in contractors, who work on a ten-year cycle, to do a deep-clean cut of the system’s rights of way. This clearing provides ten-feet clearance on either side of the wire, ground-to-sky. The inspections and clearing are done on a cyclical process.

Ultimately, the WMP dictates much of our operational planning and system maintenance. It took plans that were already in place and made them more robust. It helps the Co-op be proactive versus reactive. The plan features maps which show the highest priority areas on our system, like the Nine Mile, Petty Creek and Rock Creek areas. These areas are known as the “Wildland Urban Interface,” or intersections of heavy development and fuel-dense, fire-prone areas.

When it comes to operational planning and maintenance, Joe is a big fan of the WMP and commented, “The WMP has been a huge help for operational prioritization. The detailed mapping changed where our priorities lie. This is where it’s been the biggest impact to us. It really helped us prioritize areas that need attention the most.”

Continual Improvements
The strategies, programs, goals and metrics included in the WMP, are an effective approach to reduce fire-related risk in the near-term and will allow for refinement and improvement over time. As MEC gains experience implementing the WMP’s mitigation programs, and as new information emerges, the Co-op will assess, evaluate, enhance and refine its practices and the plan. MEC’s business planning process includes budgeting and strategic planning for a three-to-five-year planning horizon.

The goal is to update the plan every five years and work alongside key stakeholders for review and comment during each review cycle.

Additional Measures
Thankfully, new technologies, like drones, can help utilities be more proactive when it comes to wildfire mitigation. Drones are more efficient, especially for difficult-to-access areas. A project that used to take an entire day, can now be performed in just 30 minutes.

The Cooperative recently purchased a drone and plans to get a Drone Program in place in the near future. When the program is ready to launch, three Operations team members have their commercial drone pilots’ licenses and are ready for takeoff! The infrared camera on the drone will help crew members look for “hot spots,” caused by weak electrical connections. This cues us to maintenance measures, which lessen the likelihood of wildfires and improves system reliability.

Another prevention technique is to bury line underground. The benefit being that underground power lines don’t typically spark wildfires and they’re not as vulnerable to a wildfire when they’re below ground. MEC is actively trying to bury some of our wildfire-prone lines and is the first utility in Montana to apply for a FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant. These are grant funds that are available for preparations and system-hardening BEFORE disaster might strike. This funding stemmed from Hurricane Katrina, when FEMA realized that they could save money on the back-end by offering grants pre-disaster. FEMA created a detailed cost-benefit program to show the cost of the project vs. the potential cost of the damages if not addressed.

It’s a robust program that is managed at a statewide level, by the Montana Department of Emergency Services. If granted, MEC has plans to bury power lines up Rock Creek. These power poles are hard to access and require helicopter assistance to set them along three different mile-long stretches. Although underground lines sound ideal, there are often reasons we cannot go underground, including cost, wetlands, a utility-dense area or a rocky environment.

Our Members
We’ve talked about the objectives of the Wildfire Mitigation Plan and a few prevention techniques, but we haven’t talked about how YOU can help! The main way our members can help, is to be aware that trees on your property can impact the lines, in turn impacting service reliability, your neighborhood’s power supply and, in some cases, lead to wildfires. As you landscape, we ask that you keep fast-growing trees away from the lines – meaning about ten feet on either side of the wires, when fully-grown.

As part of the WMP, tree removal is a priority. Our Tree Trimming Crews are available to remove or trim any trees or vegetation that are progressing towards, or leaning on, our lines. Alternately, if you are contacted about a tree that needs trimmed or removed on your property, please be understanding. Joe said it best during our interview, “We’re removing trees in many cases, because there’s several hundred people downstream of the line that are depending on it for power and the tree creates a hazard for everyone in the vicinity from a wildfire standpoint. We’re all in it together – it’s everybody’s system.”