Wildfire Mitigation Plan Update

Posted: June 1, 2022
Mark Hayden, GM

The Western United States is one of the most fire-prone areas in the United States. No stranger to wildfires, Southwestern Montana is among the many regions that are faced with the unique challenges fire season presents. As wildfire occurrences continue to rise in the Northwest, the Cooperative’s policies, procedures and programs must help manage or reduce the risk of system-caused wildfires.

In the July 2021 issue of Rural Montana Magazine, we shared the Cooperative’s approach to wildfire prevention, which relies heavily on the comprehensive Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP) that our team developed in 2020. The WMP outlines MEC’s ongoing efforts to mitigate wildfire ignitions by employing various operational and maintenance strategies. In other words, it helps the Co-op analyze and address potential risk factors of wildfires. As we enter the 2022 fire season, I wanted to provide our members with an update on our operational accomplishments, priorities, strategies and goals as we continue to work through the plan.

A significant portion of the WMP relies on the proactive work of our Right-Of-Way (ROW) Crews. This year, MEC’s ROW crew received the support of two Asplundh contract crews, which allow us to be timelier and more effective with the inspection and clearing of high priority areas identified on our WMP maps. We refer to these areas as “Wildland Urban Interface,” or intersections of heavy development and fuel-dense, fire-prone areas. The extra crews also help us work our aggressive Vegetation Management Program, which targets a full-system inspection every two years. System inspections help crews identify which trees or vegetation could be hazardous and trim or remove them accordingly.

In the first-half of 2022, ROW crews have been focused on inspecting and clearing priority areas Northeast of Missoula. This includes the I-90 corridor between Bonner and Drummond (Clinton, Rock Creek and Beavertail Hill) and everything up the Blackfoot Drainage Basin (Bonner to Clearwater Junction, Ovando, Helmville, Seeley Lake and Condon). We will complete inspections by June 1st and hope to be done with high priority cutting efforts by mid-to-late summer.

The work our team accomplishes for the WMP is two-fold. It not only helps us mitigate the risk of powerline-sparked wildfires, but it also helps us to improve system reliability, which reduces outages. Aside from the annual tasks outlined in our WMP, our crews have stepped up maintenance efforts by performing service reliability. This involves adding cover-up to exposed parts, changing old connectors and replacing worn or outdated equipment. Last fall, we performed service reliability on the Petty Creek and Nine Mile areas. This year, we have a contract crew that is dedicated to service reliability in Double Arrow and an MEC crew that has been working on the Lolo and Florence areas.

As new technologies and equipment emerge, we frequently analyze and strategize how they could benefit our system and ultimately, our members. We are still in the early-stages, but the Co-op is rolling out a pilot project on automated equipment. One such project is the use of highly sensitive electronic breakers that our team can quickly access and adjust the settings on to reduce and/or prevent arcing. We have plans to put three of the electronic breakers on our system.

MEC recently piloted an automated Situational Awareness Tool, which aggregates fire danger data from each of our seven districts. This daily notification addresses things like weather, humidity and moisture content. The tool looks at predictors in upcoming weather patterns, like a big wind event, after a very dry, hot period. This will trigger a fire hazard alert in the system, meaning a modification in our daily operating procedures may be necessary.

Another tool that has become increasingly helpful is the Cooperative’s drone. With three licensed drone pilots on our crew, inspection work has become much more efficient. We can inspect lines earlier in the season, regardless of snow levels, and reach hard-to-access lines as necessary. The drone’s infrared camera allows us to find “hot spots” and address weak electrical connections early-on. These inspection and maintenance measures lessen the likelihood of wildfires and improve system reliability.

Each year, the Co-op will continue to allocate resources to address wildfire mitigation throughout our system. Our territory is vast and spans multiple national forests, which are fuel-dense and prone to wildfires. Not only that, but Montana summers are hot and dry, which puts us in a higher risk category. These, among others, are significant reasons as to why utilities across the Northwest are placing a greater emphasis on wildfire mitigation. MEC will continue to provide routine WMP updates to our members in the months and years ahead.