Reducing the Threat of Wildfires

CEO Dave MarkhamNearly 50,000 wildfires burned 4.6 million acres throughout the United States last year, with the West hit especially hard.

During the past decade, California’s 20 most destructive fires ignited due to faulty electrical equipment or downed power lines.

Searching for answers, Congress convened a hearing in January inviting utility executives and forest management specialists to articulate what steps utilities and the federal government could take to make electric infrastructure more resilient against future failures.

Invited to testify, I highlighted Central Electric’s experiences, spoke to the practical challenges we face to implement wildfire precautions and ensure system reliability, and discussed how the federal government could lend assistance through improving certain policies and practices.

I also shared that Oregon cooperatives were demonstrating leadership by initiating a unique approach to partner with federal land agencies to implement strategies to reduce the risk of wildfires.

A core effort to reduce wildfire risk, ensure public safety and provide reliable service to our members relies on upgrading utility poles and managing vegetation in utility corridors on heavily forested federal lands. A major hurdle, however, is getting timely authorization or permits from the federal land agency.

For example, Central Electric is seeking approval to replace 131 aging power poles and remove encroaching vegetation along a 13-mile overhead power line route on federal land in the Camp Sherman area. Installing taller poles with wider crossarms will enhance reliability and resiliency and reduce the threat of wildfire ignitions. Central Electric also requested permission to remove all vegetation within the utility corridor, including dead snags, hazard trees and limbs outside of the utility corridor, which could fall into contact with the power line.

Despite submitting our application to the federal land agency in April 2019, we have not been authorized to move forward. The window of opportunity in Camp Sherman to complete this project before the fire season is narrow due to winter snow and spring rain.

While this episode—and others like it—prove frustrating, we highly value our relationships with federal land agencies and want to work collaboratively with them. In that vein, Oregon electric co-op leaders will convene a workshop this spring with the state, regional and district land management agencies to identify actions that can be implemented on federal lands in a timely fashion to reduce wildfire risk within utility corridors and adjacent lands.

The strong support expressed by the federal land management agencies is encouraging. I am optimistic we can develop principles committed to producing an agreement among all stakeholders to more efficiently reduce the threat of wildfires to the benefit of Central Oregon’s citizens, communities and natural resources.