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At LPEA and Empire Electric, wildfires are front and center

California blazes put a focus on utilities’ exposure to losses during blazes
Chad Gatherer, a drone pilot, flies a drone as Anson Pinkston, also with UAV Recon, keeps an eye on it. On Aug. 3, UAV Recon flew its drone over La Plata Electric Association electric lines off Cherry Creek Road (County Road 105) inspecting power poles for overgrown vegetation near lines. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

California’s major electric utility, PG&E, filed bankruptcy in 2019 after its power lines starting several major wildfires in 2017.

The wildfires and the bankruptcy got the attention of the electric utility industry, but fire-mitigation efforts have long been important at La Plata Electric Association and Empire Electric.

“Wildfire is on the forefront of every electric service provider with the California fires, but we’ve always done fire mitigation,” said Jerry Sutherlin, LPEA’s vice president of operations. “But now, we really are focusing hard on it.”

LPEA, which provides power in La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan and parts of Hinsdale and Mineral counties, has almost 40,000 poles in its system and 3,750 miles of overhead line.

Sutherlin said one-third of the overhead line is inspected visually every year. The 40,000 poles go through a 10-year inspection cycle.

Chad Gatherer, a drone pilot, and Anson Pinkston, both with UAV Recon, guide a drone Aug. 3 as they fly over La Plata Electric Association electric lines. They were inspecting power poles and looking for vegetation overgrowth near the lines. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

Helicopters are used to inspect power lines, and recently, for the first time, LPEA began using drones to help inspect the lines.

Inspections are also looking at the condition of other above-ground equipment like insulators, which can crack and increase the chance that a line will come down.

In truth, Sutherlin said linemen continually inspect power lines and power poles.

“Being a former lineman, I can tell you we’re always inspecting line. When we’re driving down the road, we’re inspecting line,” Sutherlin said.

LPEA conducts ultrasound tests on poles below ground to ensure they haven’t begun to rot.

Andy Carter, Empire Electric Association’s member engagement manager, said that like LPEA, Empire, which provides power in Montezuma, Dolores and portions of San Miguel counties, had an eye on fire mitigation before the California wildfires.

The effort includes year-round tree trimming, which also improves reliability, usually using contracted crews.

Power line and pole maintenance are just the start of fire prevention at LPEA and Empire.

Fire-mitigation technology is rapidly evolving in the wake of the California fires, and the co-ops are taking advantage of it.

Ty Mortensen, a troubleman with La Plata Electric Association, goes up in a bucket on Aug. 5 to inspect a power pole on Coal Bank Pass. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

Fireproof wraps have been developed that allow electric utilities to wrap their poles ahead of a wildfire, preventing them from burning and going down in a wildfire and worsening the blaze.

Wrapping the poles depends on good prediction of wildfire behavior. If experts are able to accurately forecast a blaze’s path, crews can jump ahead of the flames and wrap vulnerable poles.

About three months ago, Sutherlin said a lightning arrester failed near Redmesa.

A hot porcelain piece created a small fire. Increasingly, equipment made out of porcelain is being replaced by polymers, which don’t explode when they fail.

Replacing equipment made of ceramic with polymers, Sutherlin said, is part of LPEA’s raptor protection program, which includes insulating overhead transformers to protect birds and other wildlife from getting electrocuted.

“When the little critters get zapped, they fall to the ground, and oftentimes they’re still smoking and maybe on fire, and that can cause a fire, whether it’s a squirrel, a bird or whatever. A neighboring co-op had a bear up in a transformer,” Sutherlin said.

Wrapped transformers protect wildlife and reduce fire risks, he said.

In heavily forested areas, Empire programs its distribution system to shut down at more minute disturbances than it normally would, an effort taken to prevent wildfires.

Ty Mortensen, a troubleman with La Plata Electric Association, points out a “trip saver” that is programmed for fire danger. It is attached to an insulated “bird wire” that is on a fuse device on a power pole on Coal Bank Pass. The bird wire keeps birds and squirrels from being electrocuted and falling to the ground as a fire hazard. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

On red flag days, equipment will be adjusted to shut down more quickly if it reads anomalies in power supply.

“It’s standard operating procedure, every spring and summer. We monitor lines that go across county, state, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management land,” Carter said. “On red flag days or when fire danger is getting high, that’s when we change those operations. We change the settings on the recloser to lessen the fire danger.”

At LPEA and Empire, the most noticeable fire prevention effort to the public is vegetation management.

Sutherlin said vegetation management often comes with some flack from homeowners,

“People love their trees,” he said.

But vegetation management is vital to keep the co-op’s rights of way groomed to minimize fire risk should lines go down.

“This is an ongoing conversation we have with our members, but it’s a really important part of making sure we are not responsible for starting a fire,” he said.

LPEA also encourages homeowners to take mitigation measures on their own property, and LPEA helps fund Southwest Colorado’s Wildfire Adapted Partnership, which pays 50% of homeowners’ use of wood chippers to help property owners thin their brush and trees.

Empire uses Asplundh Tree Expert Co. to do vegetation management, and Carter said Asplundh works with homeowners to trim trees to protect power lines. Asplundh arborists also make every effort to keep particularly beloved trees from completely being removed.

“It’s common practice to trim trees in different ways so you don’t have to cut it off at the ground,” he said.

It’s also important for homeowners to avoid planting trees or placing structures under power lines, Carter said.

Like Empire, LPEA keeps an eye on the weather and prepares when fire danger is highest.

Sutherlin said LPEA will increase the crews scheduled to work during red flag warning days when the danger of wildfire is highest.

While fire-mitigation efforts have always been part of LPEA’s daily operational and maintenance procedures, Sutherlin said 2021 was the first year fire-mitigation had its own line item in LPEA’s budget.

Fire mitigation efforts are spread across multiple areas. In 2021, LPEA has budgeted $16.6 million to upgrade outdated infrastructure, boost fire prevention and increase equipment reliability and safety.

Carter said fire mitigation has always been part of Empire’s operations and maintenance efforts, but the California fires brought into focus how important those efforts are.

“It emphasized to us the importance of all these measures,” he said.

The good news in electric grid fire prevention is that equipment is getting better.

“The technology is improving every day,” Sutherlin said.

Equipment that once caused arcing when it failed is being replaced by safer designs, less likely to cause fires.

Use of new materials such as polymers are helping, too.

The new equipment is more expensive than the older designs, but Sutherlin said the price is worth paying.

“Yes, it is more expensive, but it’s not more expensive than having to replace an entire system you might lose in a fire,” he said.

Sutherlin is especially enjoying the robust monsoon.

Being responsible for LPEA’s power lines makes him an especially avid weather watcher.

“I lose sleep over this,” he said. “It’s a huge concern, and we’re no stranger to wildfires,” he said.


An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect spelling for UAV Recon.

Chad Gatherer, a drone pilot, prepares to fly a drone over La Plata Electric Association electric lines. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

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