Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

A branch above the rest

Vegetation Management at MEC

 

Ryan G. Hall

Missoula Electric Cooperative tree trimmer Scott Randles works on a large cottonwood tree identified as a risk for falling on MEC's overhead powerline.

With spring weather teasing us occasionally, I can't help but think what a difference a year makes! Missoula Electric Cooperative's (MEC's) 2019 winter maintenance season, which runs from November to April, was much different when compared to our 2018 season. While most rang in 2018 with loved ones, many of the dedicated employees at MEC were working tirelessly to restore power that was lost during a New Year's storm that wreaked havoc on the northern part of our system, including Seeley Lake. While Mother Nature calls the shots when it comes to major storms and inclement weather, we recognize that MEC's Right-of-Way (ROW) Vegetation Program plays a principal role in the reduction of nuisance blinks, the frequency and duration of outages and the reduction of powerline-sparked wildfires.

Over recent years, wildfire mitigation has gained significant attention nationally. Many of you may recall the devastating fires that ravaged California last year, as well as the subsequent challenges faced by the utility company said to be responsible for the blaze.

Montanans, particularly those in Western Montana, have been impacted by lightning-sparked wildfires over the past few fire seasons. Although rare, the possibility of powerline-sparked wildfires is very real. It is because of this possibility that MEC has been working diligently towards mitigating the risk of powerline-sparked wildfires through our ROW Program.

Maintaining a network of more than 2,000 miles of distribution line is a continuous task. With more than 1,100 miles of overhead line, much of which crosses heavily forested terrain, an aggressive reliability program is critical. Similar to vehicle maintenance, where we routinely change the oil or rotate the tires, MEC's electric grid also requires proper maintenance.

Throughout the year, our crews regularly conduct pole and line inspections. If our crew finds a weak or damaged pole, we replace the pole to ensure the strength and resiliency of the line. Additionally, our Vegetation Management Program is designed to keep our ROW's clear by removing dead or decaying trees, in proximity to our lines, before they negatively impact our system.

Although line inspections, equipment upgrades and installing wildlife protection are important, our Vegetation Management Program is critical to reducing nuisance blinks, improving our system's safety and lowering the risk of powerline-sparked wildfires. As you can imagine, the cost to clear MEC's ROW is one of our major ongoing maintenance items.

In 2018 alone, MEC spent nearly $725,000 to further these efforts. Following a devastating fire season in 2017, we reserved an additional $700,000 to support future ROW work. Additionally, MEC hired a handful of contract crews in 2018 to bolster our efforts, which allowed us to make significant progress.

Last year, there was an important federal development in vegetation management, particularly on Forest Service land. In March of 2018, the President signed the Omnibus Spending Bill, which amended the Federal Land Policy Management Act by adding specific guidelines on vegetation management for forest managers. This bill was extremely significant, especially to a system like ours, which traverses miles of federal land. The cooperation we've received from Federal Land Managers, and moreover the cooperation from all of our members, has been appreciated as our crews work to remove hazardous trees within our system.

In 2019, MEC will continue to focus on our ROW Clearance Program, which will contribute to our efforts to improve service reliability. As we continue our vegetation management efforts this summer, our three-person tree trimming crew will be joined by three additional contract crews. These crews will focus their attention on areas near Seeley Lake, Clinton and several isolated locations throughout our system.

Whether our members are flipping on a light switch, plugging in their cell phone or cranking up the AC, our primary goal is to deliver on our promise of reliable service. Members with questions, concerns or suggestions are welcome to contact our office at 406-541-4433.

 

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