Fall Foliage, Ovando

2023 Wildfire Mitigation Update

Posted: July 1, 2023
Mark Hayden, GM

Smokey skies, scratchy throats and watery eyes are all too familiar to Western Montanans during fire season. Although irritating and unwelcome, these inconveniences pale in comparison to the devastation wildfires can leave behind. Wildfire size, frequency and severity have risen year-over-year, prompting a critical response from electric utilities.

Responsible for powering some of the nation’s most fire-prone, fuel-dense areas, Missoula Electric Cooperative’s policies, programs and procedures must manage or reduce the risk of system-caused wildfires. In 2020, MEC developed a comprehensive Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP), which has proven essential to our operations. The WMP details the Co-op’s wildfire mitigation strategies, programs, adopted technologies and operational practices that have been implemented to reduce the potential for system ignitions. In the July 2021 issue of Rural Montana Magazine, we introduced the Cooperative’s WMP and our approach to wildfire prevention. In the June 2022 edition of the magazine, we shared the Co-op’s wildfire mitigation accomplishments, priorities, strategies and future goals. We will continue to provide annual updates because of the importance to our operations, members and community.

Working the Plan

A key component of our WMP includes frequent visual inspections of our assets in the field. The Cooperative targets a full-system inspection every two years, shifting focus between our eastern and western service territories. These observations are identified in our plan as safety patrols and Right-of-Way (ROW) inspections and allow for more timely detection and repair of maintenance issues on our powerlines and equipment, and for the removal of hazardous trees or vegetation before problems occur. High-risk areas, like the Double Arrow and Rock Creek, have been identified as “Wildland Urban Interface,” or intersections of heavy development and fuel-dense, fire-prone areas. These areas are a priority and are inspected and cleared annually before wildfire season.

Our Tree Trimmer Lead is designated as the primary inspector tasked with safety patrols and ROW inspections across the Co-op’s system. This individual is responsible for setting and maintaining high standards, and lending a meticulous, consistent eye to our territory. In addition to his training as an arborist who is skilled in identifying hazardous trees and vegetation, the Lead has been trained to recognize and document line maintenance issues requiring attention before problems occur. Once inspections are complete, identified issues are assigned a priority level for the orderly scheduling of follow-up work.

In 2022, we strengthened our ROW program to meet the requirements established in our WMP. With an expansive service territory, several high-risk areas and time-sensitive priorities, MEC added two additional Tree Trimmers to our Seeley Lake ROW Crew. The new additions on the ROW Crew gave us the ability to cut all high-priority and medium-priority hazards identified during the 2022 inspection phase. In addition, we were able to complete our 2023 annual safety patrols and ROW inspections, which include service territories south and west of Missoula, and all high priority work found during inspections. Our crews have also completed the annual inspection of the high-risk areas identified in the WMP, including Huson, Rock Creek, Potomac, the Seeley Lake area and MEC’s transmission corridor. As the year progresses, crews will continue cutting and clearing sites identified as low priority during previous inspections.

In addition to safety patrols and ROW inspections, considerable progress was made on our Strategic Maintenance and Reliability Taskforce (SMART) program last year. Focused on aggressive line maintenance and system hardening, MEC line crews worked through the SMART program with a focus on the Lolo and Potomac areas. Rocky Mountain Contractors supported our crew’s efforts in MEC’s Double Arrow and Nine Mile service areas.

MEC’s Line Crews recognize their potential impact and take proactive safety measures during wildfire season. As outlined in the WMP, these operational measures help the Co-op establish a baseline for how we accomplish daily tasks while reducing our impact. The “Escalating Conditions Matrix” is a tool we developed to guide operations as fire restriction stages intensify. Some of the operational modifications include adding water tanks and pumps on trucks, using equipment like shovels, Pulaski’s and battery-powered chainsaws, and relying on the Daily Situational Analysis Tool (DSAT). The DSAT was introduced in 2022 and is a vital tool that gives us a six-day predictive weather forecast, allowing us time to modify operations and reprioritize jobs, especially during “red-flag” events.

As fire season approaches, it is important to remember that if fire conditions necessitate, we may shift portions of our system to what we call “non-reclose”. Under normal operating conditions, your lights will often blink before power is interrupted. These blinks improve reliability as equipment on the line attempts to clear the fault without a prolonged outage, however, the attempt can be a source of elevated fire risk under the right conditions. When set to non-reclose your lights will not blink but instead interrupt power the instant a problem is detected on the line. These modified settings significantly reduce the risk of a powerline sparked wildfire. The minor downside to members is that non-reclose requires a crew member to manually patrol 100% of the powerline before restoring power, which can lead to more frequent and prolonged outages among impacted areas.

Ongoing Improvements

Each year, the Wildfire Mitigation team gathers to review the WMP and strategize for the year ahead. These leaders are responsible for implementing the plan and equipping our crews with the resources and training needed to succeed. It is assumed that the work outlined in the plan will never be complete because we’re always looking for new technologies or methods to further mitigate our risk. When the year ends, we report on our progress to the Co-op’s Board of Trustees and discuss our strategies, priorities, and challenges for the coming year.

Taking the Lead

MEC prides itself on being a leader and partner in wildfire mitigation across the Northwest. We have shared our mitigation strategies at national conferences and offered our plan as a framework for others to follow. As wildfire mitigation becomes increasingly important, you would be hard-pressed to find a cooperative that is not taking proactive measures. For many, this includes the creation of a Wildfire Mitigation Plan, undergrounding lines when feasible, inspecting and clearing lines, using predictive data analytics and hardening systems. Some strategies to harden systems include covering exposed conductors to reduce sparks, installing non-combustible poles and treating poles to prevent burning. The use of advanced technology, like satellite imagery and drone inspections, to identify risk areas has also risen. While every fire season will present different challenges and levels of risk, utilities must be proactive to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic consequences.

Our Members

The safety of our members and their communities is our priority and responsibility. A part of that responsibility is equipping our members with methods to be proactive at home. We encourage you to go outside and walk around your property. Could any of your trees impact a power line? If the answer is yes, give us a call. Our ROW crew is available to remove or trim trees or vegetation that are progressing towards or leaning on our lines. Alternatively, please understand if you are contacted about a tree needing to be trimmed or removed on your property, that these trees have been identified as having a potential impact on service reliability and, in some cases, could lead to wildfires. Another proactive measure is to plant large, fast-growing trees away from the lines, which means they are located at least ten feet away from the lines when fully grown. Finally, if you’re in a fuel-dense area, create a defensible space around your property by trimming trees and removing debris.

Our territory is vast and spans several national forests, which are fuel-dense and susceptible to wildfire. Not only that, but Montana summers are hot and dry, which puts us in a higher risk category. These, among others, are significant reasons why MEC is deeply invested in wildfire mitigation.