Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Kelsey Lodge
Missoula Electric Cooperative 

Missoula Electric Cooperative's approach to wildfire prevention

 

August 5, 2021

iStock.com/JPilipson

Wildland firefighters lighting a controlled burn in an attempt to contain the adjacent wildfire.

The Western United States has experienced some of the most devastating wildfires in the nation's history. In 2017, the wildfire season brought unique challenges for Montana. Not only was it exceptionally hot and dry over a longer period of time, but fires burned across the entire state. A record 2,420 fires burned over 1.4 million acres that year, making it the most destructive fire season to date. As we enter fire season, it's important to understand the prevention methods your Cooperative has in place.

Wildfire mitigation plays an essential role in Missoula Electric Cooperative's operational practices. The Co-op's existing policies, programs and procedures directly or indirectly manage or reduce the risk of system-caused wildfires. Over the years, MEC has adopted fire mitigation programs to adjust to the increasing threat of wildfires. Furthermore, the Co-op has adopted technologies and improved practices to further diminish the potential for ignitions and effectively respond if the need arises. Last year, MEC took wildfire mitigation a step further, and proactively created a Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP). Although not mandated by the state, MEC felt that a comprehensive WMP was essential, as wildfire occurrences continue to rise in the Northwest. Chief Operating Officer (COO) Joe Smith who was the lead on the design and execution of the WMP agrees, "It's imperative for MEC to have a Wildfire Mitigation Plan because we are in one of the most fire-prone, fuel-dense areas in the United States."

The WMP is a comprehensive document that outlines MEC's ongoing efforts to mitigate wildfire ignitions through the implementation of various operational and maintenance strategies. Simply put, the WMP helps the Co-Op analyze and address potential risk factors when it comes to wildfires.

As the plan was developed, there were a handful of key objectives to consider:

Protect Public Safety

The safety of our members, their communities and our beautiful state is not only a priority, but a responsibility. Adhering to the priorities and programs outlined in the WMP is a step towards prevention and a good measure of public safety and protection.

Minimize Wildfire Risk

There are a few ways in which wildfire can impact our system. Equipment failure can occur during its service life, even with routine maintenance and inspection. For example, internal defects, that are not visible or predictable, can be the cause of destructive equipment failure resulting in sparks. Similarly, the failure of components can result in wire failure and wire-to-ground contact.

Another risk is foreign contact from wildlife, vegetation and third-party equipment. Lastly, vehicle impact to power poles is a risk. The goal of the WMP is to identify and provide strategic, prioritized prevention measures for each of these risk factors.

Effective Communication and Outreach

MEC's service territory is expansive and spans four national forests, seven counties and two states. To create the WMP, MEC sought input and comment from multiple agencies, including the Lolo and Flathead National Forests, US Forest Service, Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, Montana Statewide Office of Emergency Management, Montana Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management – Missoula, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Montana Disaster Emergency Service (DES). It was important to seek input from parties that MEC might require support or partnership from should a wildfire occur. These agencies helped outline responsible parties, emergency contacts and procedures. A third-party engineering firm reviewed the final WMP to ensure it was comprehensive and actionable.

Be Proactive

Published in 2020, MEC was the first utility in the state to issue a WMP. The Co-op's five-year plan was developed to be consistent with industry best practices. While WMP regulations are under development and vary by state, the plans in general, are likely to direct utilities to develop operational policies and practices to prevent, prepare for and respond to wildfire events.

When speaking with Joe, who has consulted many local utilities on this topic, he urged, "Anyone in a fire-prone area, like much of the Western United States, should have one. We are fuel-heavy and dry."

Documented Vegetation Management Program

MEC has an aggressive Vegetation Management Program, which seeks to inspect 50% of our system each year. System inspection is critical because our crews need to understand what we're working with. Trees and vegetation are trimmed or removed immediately in urgent cases and/or if there's less than two-years of line-clearance.

To work more efficiently, MEC brought in contractors who do a deep-clean cut of the system's rights of way. This clearing provides ten-feet clearance on either side of the wire, ground-to-sky. The inspections and clearing are done on a cyclical process.

Ultimately, the WMP dictates much of our operational planning and system maintenance. It took plans that were already in place and made them more robust. It helps the Co-op be proactive versus reactive. The plan features maps which show the highest priority areas on our system like the Nine Mile, Petty Creek and Rock Creek areas. These areas are known as the "Wildland Urban Interface," or intersections of heavy development and fuel-dense, fire-prone areas.

When it comes to operational planning and maintenance, Joe is a big fan of the WMP and commented, "The WMP has been a huge help for operational prioritization. The detailed mapping changed where our priorities lie. This is where it's been the biggest impact to us. It really helped us prioritize areas that need attention the most."

Continual Improvements

The strategies, programs, goals and metrics included in the WMP, are an effective approach to reduce fire-related risk in the near-term and will allow for refinement and improvement over time.

As MEC gains experience implementing the WMP's mitigation programs and as new information emerges, the Co-op will assess, evaluate, enhance and refine its practices and the plan. MEC's business planning process includes budgeting and strategic planning for a three-to-five-year planning horizon. The goal is to update the plan every five years and work alongside key stakeholders for review and comment during each review cycle.

 

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