Transmission tower on the ground. A blue sky in the background.

Safeguarding the grid through vegetation management

Over the past several years, the United States has witnessed an increase of wildfire activity and intensity, threatening safe and reliable electrical transmission throughout the West.  

The catastrophic 2018 Carr Fire in California became an inflection point for power-producing and transmitting organizations such as WAPA to reexamine their policies and procedures to better mitigate fire dangers along transmission corridors. Since then, WAPA has conducted studies, implemented new policies, and deployed technologies and communications strategies that have improved the way WAPA mitigates wildfire danger across its footprint. 

Carr Fire fallout

“After the Carr Fire, it became mandatory for many companies to develop and implement wildfire mitigation plans, on the state level,” said Sierra Nevada region Vegetation and Access Road Specialist Ricardo Velarde. 

In March 2021, a scoping report was issued in California, which initiated a joint environmental impact statement and environmental impact report for the Wildfire Risk Reduction, Reliability, and Asset Protection (WRAP) project. Both WAPA and Trinity Public Utilities District, came together to work on an EIS/EIR for the WRAP project. The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation are collaborating agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act.  

The main goals of the WRAP project encompass proactively managing vegetation to reduce wildfire risks, improving the protection of WAPA’s transmission and Trinity PUD’s distribution line systems, enhancing the reliability of power delivery under WAPA’s contract and ensuring transmission line access through road improvements.  

The partners held additional policy meetings to broaden the preventative wildfire measures along transmission lines. WAPA, being a federal agency and not necessarily tied to state regulations, decided to adhere to those measures as well.  

“The western Central Valley Project, specifically within WAPA, has taken concrete steps by hiring additional personnel dedicated to wildfire patrols who look for potential fire hazards along WAPA’s footprint,” Velarde explained. “WAPA has also increased surveillance capabilities which utilize infrared and corona cameras to assist with inspections in the spring of each year.” 

This technology can detect hot spots or wildfires in full daylight from long distances, making it an ideal predictive maintenance device for overhead transmission lines and high voltage substations. 

Boots on the ground

The core of wildfire prevention comes down to clearing potential fuel. The Integrated Vegetation Management program stands as an essential part of infrastructure protection against challenges such as extreme weather conditions, increased wildland fire exposure and enduring drought.  

It provides an essential means for maintaining grid resiliency and reliability across WAPA’s transmission system consisting of over 17,000 miles of transmission lines, more than 260 substations and other electrical facilities such as microwave sites, access roads and distribution lines within a 15-state service area. However, WAPA is also exploring a broader range of ways to reduce fire hazards throughout its footprint. 

In addition to IVM measures, WAPA secured long-term contracts with professional line-clearance tree trimming, brushing and herbicide companies. They have carried out extensive brush clearing and fuel reduction around towers, roads and facilities in high-fire threat areas and removed thousands of off-right-of-way hazard trees posing fall-in risks to the lines. 

Preparing for the worst

In May 2022, Rocky Mountain region IVM staff participated in planning and organizing the Colorado Utility Wildfire Summit. The summit focused on integrating public safety power shutoff procedures with federal emergency response doctrine and improving communications and coordination with external agencies at various levels. Utility personnel from western states convened to discuss critical topics including infrastructure enhancements to reduce wildfire risks, key objectives of utility wildfire mitigation plans, regulatory perspectives on these plans and collaboration among regulators, utilities, first responders and civic officials.  

The summit also aimed to share best practices, lessons learned from the devastating 2021 fire season, strategies for grid hardening, situational awareness techniques and cutting-edge technology for wildfire management. WAPA members, along with other attendees, explored the regulatory view of wildfire mitigation plans, identified lessons from case studies and delved into the use of climate science, big data and machine learning to identify threats to the electric system. 

Sierra Nevada region Supervisory Maintenance Specialist Stephen Tuggle emphasized the importance of being prepared for emergencies. 

“The best way to protect against the potentially harmful effects of both manmade incidents, like wildfire, and other natural disasters is to ensure that employees know how to respond in an emergency,” he said. “This level of protection involves pre-planning, training and rehearsal.” 

He further noted that WAPA’s ongoing development of emergency plans involves role-playing exercises, which lead to heightened awareness and improved ability to mitigate the severity of fire impacts on critical infrastructure. 

“It’s this proactive approach we prepared for and demonstrated by implementing our emergency plan during the Carr Fire in real time, testing the expertise and training of our regional leadership group and field crews,” he said. 

WAPA’s Desert Southwest region has also shown major improvements to processes involving internal communications and coordination between departments that aim to proactively reduce catastrophic wildfire risk.  

“Fire mitigation has become even more of a priority here at DSW, so we don’t put our crews or equipment at risk,” said DSW Supervisory Environmental Protection Specialist Natalie Ortega. “The coordination between departments has improved dramatically, and has made the process more efficient, especially when it comes to preventative measures. When the environmental team is in the field, completing surveys, and notices a potential hazard, the team will notify Maintenance or IVM about what they saw, so it can be addressed accordingly.” 

In the past year, DSW’s fire management has officially been carried out under Maintenance. According to Ortega, Abel Betancourt and Mike Simonton have redeveloped DSW’s Wildfire Response Communication Protocols Manual and begun reporting weekly status on wildfires within DSW. 

Enhancing wildfire surveillance and response

In January 2022, WAPA implemented a new system called IQGeo, a reporting tool that allows craft employees, or virtually any WAPA employee or contractor in the field, to report any potential hazards.  

“Previous tools required extensive time for reported issues to be viewable by office staff; this would sometimes result in issues not being viewable for weeks after a hazard was identified,” explained Acting IT Supervisor Christine Budd. “IQGeo allows field users to sync data from anywhere, enabling office staff to see issues as they are reported.” 

The improved intel enables WAPA to dispatch crews to remedy threats before they jeopardize lines or other equipment.  

“This provides real-time feedback for what is going on and is a better way of keeping up to date on what’s happening in the field,” Ortega said. 

WAPA seeks to utilize cutting edge technology as it becomes available to help keep ahead of potential disastrous circumstances. Advancements include using LiDAR and aerial, ground and supporting inspection data to identify and prioritize risk reduction work. 

Staff members receive training on LiDAR, drones and wildfire mitigation tools to stay up to date with industry best practices. WAPA also collaborates with external agencies to conduct wildfire mitigation and vegetation management projects adjacent to transmission line rights of way.  

Yet as useful technologies march ahead, collaborative planning remains front and center. 

“WAPA constantly reviews our plans and procedures and updates them in conjunction with local communities, supporting agencies and other entities to ensure compliance with NEPA and protect our transmission assets across the system,” said Velarde. 

Last modified on March 12th, 2024