By Philip Reed
The wildfire season in 2020 was particularly devastating, with West Coast states finding the destructive events difficult to control. More than 10.2 million acres were burned in California, Oregon and Washington. The fires took lives, destroyed buildings and resulted in around $20 billion in damage.
The risk wildfire presents to the grid is never far from WAPA’s mind, and Sierra Nevada staff is partnering with Trinity Public Utilities District to improve rights of way. This initiative is intended to mitigate the threat to transmission lines from wildfires, and it began in early 2020, well before the record-setting season got underway.
The scope of the project is large and there is still a long way to go.
“We have a large stakeholder group of agencies we are teaming with on this project,” said Natural Resource Specialist Beth Kelly.
For instance, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all cooperating agencies.
Other stakeholders involved include – but are not limited to – the Army Corps of Engineers, the California State Lands Commission, the California Department of Water Resources, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Department of Transportation.
The intention is to expand the Trinity-to-Weaverville right of way to protect the transmission and distribution line system through proactive vegetation management. This would also enhance the reliability of power distribution, improve WAPA transmission line access and protect the health and safety of nearby communities and biological and natural resources.
State of California Senate Bill 901 requires publicly owned electric utilities to prepare wildfire mitigation measures if the utilities’ overhead electrical lines and equipment are located in an area that has a significant wildfire risk.
The areas surrounding TPUD and WAPA’s systems are vulnerable to fire risk due to the dense vegetation and steep terrain, and CalFire has classified this area as being a “very high fire hazard.” This risk was made manifest in the recent Carr Fire.
The proposed project would reduce fuel loads within the rights of way of these utility systems, create a potential firebreak and minimize the risk of wildfires caused by powerlines.
Recent wildfires have indicated that the current minimum buffer clearances are not sufficient to prevent destructive wildfires. The right-of-way expansion and vegetation management project is designed to address this proactively.
The project consists of a number of improvements. It expands the WAPA Trinity-to-Weaverville 60-kilovolt transmission line right of way from 80 feet to up to 130 feet, the Lewiston 60-kV Tap right of way from 80 feet to up to 130 feet and TPUD’s distribution line rights of way from 20 feet to up to 130 feet.
It will also improve access roads by realigning them through gentler terrain and reducing the number of tight switchbacks, provide access road maintenance for the TPUD transmission and distribution system and formalize a comprehensive operation and maintenance program for TPUD and WAPA.
The clearance distance would vary based on topography, potential land-use conflicts and other factors.
Vegetation would be removed as necessary for risk reduction and reliability purposes, using a combination of mechanical, manual and herbicidal control methods. WAPA and TPUD would improve and rehabilitate access roads as needed.
“We have completed biological and cultural resources surveys so far,” said Kelly. “We just completed two public scoping meetings with the public, held virtually. Now production of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report will begin.”
The meetings were held Jan. 12 and 14 to obtain and record input, comments and alternatives to the proposed action.
As part of the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act Environmental Review, WAPA and TPUD will assess potential impacts of the project, identify ways to avoid or reduce impacts, disclose potential impacts to the public and provide environmental information to decision makers.
“We have received a lot of public comments on our right-of-way clearing methods, both WAPA and TPUD, such as the type of cutting and use of herbicide,” said Kelly. “As always, we are taking every comment into consideration and making sure we are proceeding in the best possible direction.”
The draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report is scheduled to be completed in late August, with the final version scheduled for April 2022.
Reed is a public affairs specialist.