Electric cooperatives serving communities at high risk of wildfires are strengthening their cooperation with fire response agencies and stepping up targeted member outreach.
They’re also revising their vegetation management and maintenance plans and encouraging members to help reduce fire threats near power lines.
“We’ve been strengthening our wildfire mitigation plan since 2019 in response to the larger and more destructive fires we’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest,” said Thomas Maddalone, safety director of Kootenai Electric Cooperative in Rathdrum, Idaho.
Maddalone cited tree diseases, land management and environmental factors such as prolonged droughts as factors taking on elevated importance in co-op operations, particularly in communities in relatively isolated areas.
Maddalone is a third-generation utility lineman and a professional firefighter who serves as a liaison between fire response teams and the co-op when wildfires occur. Kootenai EC’s leadership tapped his expertise to help revise the co-op’s fire mitigation and right-of-way management plans.
“I looked at life safety, overall risks to our system, likely evacuation routes, population density and ways to protect essential assets like evacuation centers, hospitals and water pumping facilities,” said Maddalone. “I also reviewed the histories and damage tracks of other fires that have occurred in our territory to develop a sense of what future fires might look like.”
The co-op’s vegetation management plan is regularly revised and updated to address likely fire progression routes where dying or damaged trees or undergrowth could be potential fuel sources.
Kootenai EC has also worked with local governments to build support for public funding to underground 50 miles of its 2,300-mile distribution system following a 2015 windstorm that knocked out service to 70% of its 28,000 meters.
In addition, the co-op was awarded FEMA hazard mitigation grants that covered 75% of a $10 million initiative to harden systems in its highest-risk areas. The plan comprised 24 projects, including hiring additional vegetation management crews to clear and maintain backcountry rights of way.
Those improvements, along with stepped-up wildfire mitigation training for co-op crews, have helped reduce the threat of fire damage and encouraged co-op personnel to report potential hazards before problems occur.
Maddalone said they prioritize educating members about the need to keep trees away from power lines.
“Driving around our system, I saw a lot of dead and dying vegetation on private property, so we talk about fire mitigation as a way of reducing system outages, and that’s been an easy sell for members,” he said.
“We’ve also been able to use local fire departments to help get that message out,” Maddalone added. “During fire inspections, they remind property owners that help from the co-op might be available to take down trees that could contribute to power outages or increase fire risks.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildland fire response, about 70,000 wildfires occur in the United States each year. Through the end of October, nearly 49,000 fires had consumed about 2.5 million acres of forests and grasslands.
At Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, in addition to internal wildfire mitigation efforts, officials also meet regularly with local emergency management personnel to discuss wildfire risk mitigation. This year, they took part in an interagency tabletop exercise.
“We’ve asked our community partners what would be helpful for them before, during and after fire incidents and have woven their needs into our plans,” said Maaike Schotborgh, the Baker City, Oregon-based distribution co-op’s manager of safety and loss control.
“We also have town hall meetings in each of our counties open to all members, community partners and stakeholders to discuss OTEC’s wildfire mitigation plans,” she said. “One of the topics we cover is our public safety power shutoff plan, which could impact about 2,500 of our 31,000 meters.”
Many co-ops also regulate components within their infrastructure like automated reclosers whenever “red flag” warnings of elevated fire risks are posted. When faults occur, disrupting service, co-op personnel are dispatched to affected areas and lines are visually inspected before regular service is restored.
OTEC expects to participate in more joint training exercises in the future because they strengthen ties and improve communications with first responders.
“We get a better understanding of the roles various agencies play during emergency response,” said Schotborgh. “That helps our members not only during and after wildfires, but during other emergency situations because we’re able to build relationships, identify performance and communications challenges and update our plans and processes before incidents like wildfires occur.”