A Montana electric cooperative is hardening its system against wildfire damage with a strategic focus on reducing potential risks, including burying lines in areas that have historically faced the greatest risk.

Missoula Electric Cooperative has moved about 20 miles of distribution infrastructure underground, and the co-op is promoting wildfire risk awareness to its members to help support the co-op’s efforts and make their communities safer.

“We've had our fair share of wildfires,” said Mark Hayden, CEO of the distribution co-op. A 2013 blaze destroyed co-op poles, wires and transformers in sections of its territory, and multiple fires in 2017 threatened or damaged equipment in six areas before they were fully controlled.

Hayden’s fears not only include fires sparked by lightning, drought conditions or fanned by high winds. He’s also growing increasingly concerned about fires sparked by line arcing, which quickly spread when tinder dry grasses and brush ignite.

“At the cooperative, we were routinely performing tasks to diminish our wildfire risk, but we needed a more documented approach. That’s when I decided that a formal mitigation plan would be advantageous, and took the idea to our directors, who were overwhelmingly supportive.”

But with about 16,000 meters, Missoula EC has to watch its costs in including wildfire mitigation in its strategic planning. The co-op hired a consultant to examine past events and consider forest conditions, existing needs and future expansion before moving ahead.

“Catastrophic wildfires, whether they damage power lines or not, are incredibly detrimental to our communities. Our board members recognize that we need to do all that we can to prevent our power lines from being the source,” said Hayden.

While much of the co-op’s work since adopting its plan has been focused on its existing system, the option of buried lines is considered for an increasing number of new projects for subdivisions and commercial developments that require expansion.

“Our system touches seven counties in two states, and we also touch four different national forests, and several other types of federal and state land,” said Sean Eskridge, the co-op’s safety and compliance officer, who oversees wildfire mitigation efforts. “We not only serve some very rural and mountainous areas, but much of the area is heavily treed, making our territory a high risk for wildfires.”

Besides undergrounding co-op assets, Missoula EC is using co-op personnel and contractors to refine right-of-way inspection and vegetation management practices.

“We are inspecting and trimming 50% of our system every year to address hazard trees and fast-growing vegetation. We also have committed to a 10-year cycle for deep cutting on our rights of way,” said Eskridge. “Since we’re removing dead or dying trees every two years, we expect to benefit from a reduced risk of toppling trees or broken limbs that can disrupt service to our members.”

That’s helped reduce nuisance outages. Modifications to system operations when meteorologists issue Red Flag warnings—periods when warm temperatures, very low humidity and strong winds can combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger—are also paying off.

During fire season, manual reclosers in fire-risk areas are set to trip on a single fault caused by tree limbs or contacts; field crews are encouraged to watch for potentially problematic trees as they travel through co-op territory; and weed trimmers are stowed in co-op vehicles to trim grass and brush if crews are operating in off-road areas when high fire-risk warnings are posted.

The co-op is also building stronger relationships with the timber industry, federal land managers and local and state public safety agencies. Routine operational tasks can be modified or postponed when fire risks are highest, or control measures can focus on specific areas based on near-term weather forecasts. Missoula EC’s website and social media messaging include a lot of information on steps individual property owners can take to reduce fire risks to their own property that could potentially lead to power outages in their areas.

“We're spreading good information on how members can help themselves,” said Hayden.

While many of the fire mitigation measures implemented by Missoula EC were in place before the co-op adopted this initiative, they now are formally part of a comprehensive strategy that’s expected to gain momentum and produce improved results over time.

“Within five years we will be much further along on vegetation management and undergrounding efforts with a goal of completing system hardening measures within 10 years,” said Hayden. “We’re also benefiting from improved communications with our stakeholders who’ve had the opportunity to review our plan. Those measures are collectively reducing wildfire risks and improving safety for all of us.”