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Utilities and Wildfires: The Shortfalls of Standard Fire Mapping Use (Part 1)

POSTED BY: Ashley Little on 10.3.2017

wildfire near utility poleIt is currently fire season in the American West. Since the start of 2017, more than 37,000 wildfires have burned 5.2 million acres nationwide. The fire season in some areas has become nearly year-round, a significant change from fifty years ago when fire season was typically only in summer and fall. Compared to the 1970’s, fire season is now 105 days longer, the annual number of large fires has tripled, and the amount of land they burn is six times greater.

Some wildfire experts say climate change and decades of aggressive wildfire suppression have primed forests to produce large, destructive blazes. Making things worse, people are increasingly building homes and offices in regions categorized as “wildland urban interface.” This term describes wildfire-prone zones where wilderness and civilization meet.

Wildland-Urban Interface: People are Moving Closer to Nature
About one-third of the country’s population live in a wildland urban interface – more than 100 million people. The majority of new developments in the U.S. are being built within 200 million acres of land that are now considered at high fire risk. This brings more homes, roads, utilities, and people into areas that face the most severe wildfire threat. 

This new and highly dangerous fire situation is requiring western states, fire managers and policy makers to rethink their strategies for preventing, preparing for, and combating wildfires.

Staying Cautious of Fires in the Utility Industry
While utility companies and pole owners are rarely the direct cause of wildfires, this does happen. Fires can be caused by downed lines, vegetation contact, and conductor slap. As a result, pole owners carry an especially heavy responsibility for maintaining and monitoring assets located within fire zones. 

During October 2007, dozens of fires burned through Southern California, fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds. Several of the worst were found to be ignited and attributed to overhead power lines and aerial communications facilities. Those fires burned more than 207,000 acres, destroyed 1,141 homes, damaged scores of others, killed 2 people and injured 40 firefighters.

Fire Mapping is Available, But Many Utilities Aren’t Using Them
To aid in fire prevention and management, many states have developed fire maps that identify regions of varying fire risk. Utilities have access to these maps, and may reference them when presented with a reported failure or repair in a high-risk area. However, the limitations of current maintenance and asset management processes often mean that this type of prioritization is limited to extreme cases where there is an absolute hazard to the public (i.e.: a utility pole is about to fall or cable is laying on the ground). 

Most asset owners lack the data and tools to address maintenance and repairs in a proactive and methodical way. Too often, issues are handled based on the “squeaky wheel,” where the biggest, hottest issue of the day is addressed, and everything else needs to wait.

Historically, joint use asset management has been perceived as a “necessary evil” across the industry. This has created a reactive culture that is slow to change and advance, and struggles with minimal tools and resources for improvement. The result is significant financial costs, which we will detail in our next article, as well as risks of damage to property and life.

What is your utility doing to proactively use fire mapping or other types of boundary data to proactively maintain assets? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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