By Philip Reed

For the past several years, the U.S. has endured a series of devastating wildfires. Many of these took place during particularly active wildfire seasons, but others – such as the Marshall and Middle Fork fires in Colorado, which started in late December 2021 – did not. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center beginning in 1983 shows that “the extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s.” They also indicated that the peak of the U.S. wildfire season has gradually moved earlier into the year, and that the 10 most active wildfire years in terms of acreage burned have all occurred since 2004​.

These events pose an increasing threat to life, property and infrastructure, and WAPA takes them seriously.

In September 2021, the organization partnered with the Forest Service to reduce the threat of wildfire ignitions from transmission lines while minimizing the potential for power outages in the Rocky Mountain region.

The partnership involved new permits that allow WAPA to perform improved vegetation management along 275 miles of transmission lines on Forest Service-managed lands in Colorado and Nebraska. The permits allow WAPA to decrease hazards and improve reliability by allowing modern, efficient removal of trees and brush, which in turn reduces or eliminates threats to facilities and mitigates rights-of-way fuel-load conditions.

“WAPA had the right to have transmission lines on Forest Service lands, but they were authorized by different methods,” explained Realty Specialist Kenny Trueax. “These were sometimes one-page letter agreements from the 1950s, sometimes a Memorandum of Understanding and sometimes more-modern Special Use Authorizations. Further, the Forest Service philosophy and vegetation management differed each time we entered a different forest.”

A lack of uniformity in these various agreements caused difficulty and delay when getting approvals to conduct maintenance.

“In some cases, we had to draft and get approval of line-specific Operations and Maintenance plans before vegetation work could begin,” he said.

The new permits help provide adequate access for maintenance, protect the public and ensure worker safety, while minimizing impacts to the environment. Well-maintained rights of way around power lines can even assist firefighters by acting as fire breaks.

One massive benefit of the new permits is that they will allow WAPA to act much more quickly to perform vegetation management.

“We estimate that this new O&M plan will save up to 90 days of administrative approval time, so vegetation crews can begin as soon as enough snow melts that they can get in,” Trueax said.

The new permits also further reduce the potential for transmission-line ignition or damage during wildfires by providing a standardized framework for utility maintenance activities. These actions help protect the natural and cultural environment, reduce the threat of wildfires and provide better road and trail access to transmission lines.

Getting to this point has been a lengthy process.

“The push for the new permits and O&M plan was underway for the past year and a half, and the right-of-way permits were a process that started in April 2021,” explained Trueax. “Getting everything finalized has a significant impact on how WAPA will be able to prepare for and respond to situations that might have led to service interruptions in the past.”

The new permits allow for WAPA to take action, based on four categories of perceived disturbance.

“The first category covers routine vegetation management, such as brushing and limbing with hand tools,” he said. “It also covers day-to-day operations, such as patrols with utility task vehicles and helicopters. This new arrangement serves as National Environmental Policy Act clearance for activities in this category. The requirement is that we meet with the Forest Service annually, in the off season, to discuss our list of planned work, best practices, access and other logistics.”

The next two categories cover work that requires additional review by the Forest Service, but even this will represent a reduction in time; within 30 days, the Forest Service will review and either approve WAPA’s work plan, suggest additional conditions or provide the organization with next steps.

“The fourth work category is emergency work,” continued Trueax. “This recognizes the 24/7 nature of keeping the lights on and allows WAPA to respond to imminent threats to outages or safety. We respond and notify the Forest Service within a prescribed time.”

These categories – with firm definitions, timelines and expectations – allow WAPA to manage vegetation with minimal delay and proactively reduce the risk of wildfires to transmission lines.

RM hasn’t wasted any time when it comes to performing maintenance under this new arrangement.

“We put in the request to perform vegetation clearing for the full right-of-way width on the Blue River-to-Gore Pass and Gore Pass-to-Hayden transmission lines,” Trueax said. “Those alone span three separate forest districts: the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, the White River National Forest and the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests. With the new permits, our crews already have permission to work and will start doing so as early in the year as possible. We will also have our first annual meeting under this plan in early 2022.”

Trueax is optimistic that this represents a significant step forward for the reliability of service that WAPA – and RM in particular – provides to customers.

“The key to success of the plan, I think, will be the participation of both agencies in the annual meetings,” he said. “Maintenance, Lands and Environment leaders planning and executing the work will get to engage with the decision makers at the Forest Service, all in one meeting.”

He was particularly pleased to report that the agreement standardizes, for the first time ever, something that will greatly benefit customers, the grid and the public in general.

“We don’t have to operate in a grey area,” Trueax concluded. “That makes all the difference.” 

Note: The author is a public affairs specialist. Eric Barendsen and Steven Webber contributed to this story.

Last modified on September 12th, 2023