By Garrett Hylton
In recent years, northern Nevada—along with much of the western United States—has started experiencing a new season during August and September: smoke season. Rather than enjoy a smooth transition from the heat of summer to the beautiful hues of fall, Nevadans now suffer through several weeks of haze and congestion as smoke billows throughout the region.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, United States wildfires have increased by 17% from 2019 and 223% since 1983. These fires don’t just represent inconvenience from the smoke in the air, they cause millions of dollars in damage, burning homes and even result in loss of life. From 2018 to 2021, 226,000 fires have affected more than 30 million acres in the United States.
Wells Rural Electric Company (WREC) recognizes the risk, expense and danger posed by wildfires. They threaten the utility in terms of liability, reliability, expense and safety. As a result, WREC’s operations personnel devote a lot of time, focus and effort to avoiding the risk of wildfire as much as possible. Much of this effort is devoted to preventative maintenance initiatives to stop wildfires from happening. With 1,400 miles of energized line stretching through 10,000 square miles of service territory, this is a massive undertaking WREC takes very seriously.
WREC lineworkers continually and systematically drive along the utility’s power lines to look for hazards and potential issues. These patrols are tracked and mapped within WREC’s system, along with potential hazards needing to be dealt with. Patrolling is also important during fire season, especially during adverse weather when immediate response can be the difference between a quick extinguishing and full-blown wildfire.
One of the primary ways WREC reduces the risk of igniting a fire and having equipment damaged in a fire is by clearing excessive vegetation that could serve as fuel for flames in the rights-of-way under the power lines. Clearing rights-of-way is typically a priority in the winter and spring when there’s a low risk of starting a fire. Vegetation management is vital because, like roads, power lines can serve as natural fire breaks to help firefighters quickly contain and extinguish wildfires.
Trees coming in contact with power lines are also at risk of fire or damage. Each spring and summer, WREC contracts with tree trimmers to move through the service territory, removing vegetation that could take out lines. As a member, you have probably seen them working in your community.
Bird nests located on electrical equipment can cause fires. They can get wet and create faults and also ignite and start fires. WREC maps and removes bird nests situated on equipment to help reduce risk.
Along with removing risks to equipment and potential fuel for fires, WREC builds structures to survive wildfires and reduce the risk of ignition. For example, poles can be built higher to escape the reach of flames and make ignition more difficult. Power lines can be hung with wider spans to prevent the risk of lines from slapping together and sparking. Equipment can be built with avian protection to discourage birds from building nests on equipment.
Along with preventive maintenance measures, WREC has also invested heavily in equipment and training to be able to respond to wildfires quickly, safely and effectively. As a result, WREC can join firefighting efforts during wildfires to help protect our equipment and contain wildfires. The cooperative is also developing plans to apply for upcoming grants to fund many of the tasks listed above.
While there’s no way to eliminate the possibility of wildfire, WREC has several examples in recent years that these efforts are worth the investment. A couple of smaller fires have burnt through WREC’s power lines without creating outages or damaging equipment. Combining all those mitigation efforts has helped WREC reduce the risk of both wildfire damage and ignition as much as possible, limiting WREC’s liability and helping improve reliability while protecting members’ investment in equipment.
Most importantly, these efforts keep WREC’s members and their property safe.