​By Eric Barendsen

Photos by Daniel Borunda

The 2020 wildfire season, particularly in Arizona, California and Colorado, has been one of the worst in modern history. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires across the country have burned more than 13.5 million acres, destroyed more than 17,600 structures and cost about $3.6 billion for fire suppression.

In Colorado, three of the state’s worst wildfires on record have occurred in 2020. The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires threatened WAPA lines in and around Estes Park. The Mullen fire threatened the Ault-to-Craig transmission line, but thanks to outstanding firefighters and WAPA’s vegetation management efforts completed only days before it approached, the Mullen fire did not damage the line.

WAPA managed to sidestep the devastation in California, having only one line trip during the Caldwell fire in July out of more than 4 million acres that have burned this year.

Being prepared

Across the West, facing one of the driest summers and autumns on record, firefighters were forced to contend with extremely dangerous conditions from July through October, protecting forests that were primed for wildfire.

Fortunately, WAPA anticipated the severity of the situation and had prepared for it. Through foresight and diligent effort, WAPA completed a range of targeted vegetation management activities and related planning in 2020 that proved critical in managing the wildfire season.

Foremost this year has been WAPA’s final push to complete an environmental impact statement, or EIS, that will decrease fuel-loading hazards and improve reliability.

Developed in coordination with the U.S. Forest Service, the EIS will formalize the partnership and clarify procedures to conduct mechanical vegetation management on WAPA rights of way on Forest Service lands. It will allow mechanical vegetation removal along 270 miles of transmission lines in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.

“An environmental assessment is like investigative reporting,” said Natural Resources Manager Elynn Burkett. “You’re going in and you’re finding all the facts.”

The vegetation management EIS analyzes a range of environmental issues, such as wildlife habitat locations, and proposes actions designed to mitigate hazards to the lines such as falling trees due to age, lightning or wildfire within WAPA’s rights of way.

The final EIS was published in August and the associated records of decision and special use permits—when issued in the coming months—will help provide adequate access for maintenance, ensure worker safety and manage wildfire risk.

Clearing the way

In a similar vein, Environment, Lands and Maintenance partnered over the last year to complete a special use permit that allowed crews to conduct significant vegetation management work this summer along the Ault-to-Craig and Terry Ranch-to-North Park transmission lines. WAPA completed the job right before the Mullen fire swept through.

“We knew coming into the summer that we needed to get this thing taken care of right away,” said Environmental Protection Specialist Scott Morey.

With extreme drought and wind predicted by weather forecasters, WAPA needed to complete the work before the fire season truly got going.

“We get lightning storms that go through and hit those dry-as-popcorn areas, and it’s just gone,” Morey explained.

Morey came onto the project in late January and worked closely with Vegetation and Maintenance Fleet Program Manager Daniel Borunda. Their cross-functional team within WAPA included Lands Manager Heidi Miller, who led negotiations with the Forest Service regarding land-access issues.

On May 15, the Forest Service approved a special use permit to conduct the work along WAPA lines on Forest Service lands, giving crews the environmental green light to access overgrown areas.

Miller, Borunda and Morey met with Forest Service representatives in June and drove sections of the Ault-to-Craig line with them, identifying areas for vegetation removal. “We made sure they had all the answers they needed,” Morey said. “It was a collaborative effort to make them comfortable with what was going on out there on the ground.”

Beginning July 20, WAPA crews cleared rights of way spanning roughly eight miles on Forest Service lands.

Gaining ground

Mechanical vegetation management involves two or three “fellers” with chainsaws going through the right of way and cutting down all the trees that could reach within roughly 20 feet of conductors. Then they use a masticator—a giant mobile woodchipper of sorts—which goes through the area and grinds everything into sawdust.

“For the first time in more than a decade, WAPA was able to remove vegetation in Colorado and Wyoming rights of way using mechanized means,” said Borunda. “We are very fortunate to have completed the machine work when we did.”

When the crews finished up on Sept. 21, the Mullen fire was already brewing to the north and was encroaching on Wyoming Highway 230 where it becomes Colorado State Highway 127 at the border of Colorado and Wyoming, southwest of Laramie.

James White, a Forest Service fire management officer for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland, was integral in accepting WAPA’s plan to remove vegetation from the east side of the Ault-to-Craig line.

“Although it took some time to have the field meetings, the office meetings, the back and forth over the spatial work, it was definitely significant collaboration between the two forests and the various specialists,” White said. “A lot of that prework paid dividends in what I would say was a very smooth implementation phase.”

Fire managers are feeling more urgency to conduct this type of work as wildfires become larger and more frequent. This year’s effort was a benchmark that proved to be timely, he said.

According to White, the Mullen fire approached within three miles of WAPA’s line—“easily within one day’s reach,” as he put it—and fire suppression managers were considering using it as a potential fire line location. Had the full force of the fire jumped the highway, they were looking at the newly treated corridor as optimal protection for the infrastructure.

Fortunately, firefighters conducted a successful burnout operation from the road that prevented aggressive southeast fire spread, he explained.

“I was super impressed by the quality of work done there on the lines,” he said. “This project sets the stage for future conversations with other power providers and shows the importance and benefits of having good partnerships to have effective and ecologically sound work done, while still meeting the primary intent of infrastructure protection.”

By the end of October, after much-needed snowfall and wintery temperatures hit the region, the Mullen fire was about 95% contained. Nonetheless, according to the incident management team, it will take sustained heavy snowfall this winter to completely extinguish all hot spots.

Mimicking nature

Although lacking the national attention of the Colorado and California wildfire seasons, Arizona has experienced significant wildfire activity this year with an estimated 850,000 acres burned as of press time—worse than 2018 and 2019 combined.

Nineteen of those fires impacted WAPA facilities but inflicted minimal damage due in large part to Desert Southwest’s best-in-class integrated vegetation management, or IVM, program.

DSW has been applying an IVM strategy for the past three years that not only targets removal of incompatible vegetation but also fuel ladders within WAPA’s easements, explained Vegetation Management Specialist Steve Narolski.

“With wildfire being an integral part of most western U.S. ecosystems, the post-treatment rights of way allow a lower intensity wildfire to burn near or pass under WAPA assets and not impact the hardware or reliability,” said Narolski. “This mimics natural processes within our rights of way in a gentler and less costly manner.”

Continuing improvement

Going forward, the new environmental impact statement will give WAPA and the Forest Service the tools to continually refine their coordination around vegetation management. One of the issues they will tackle is reducing the potential for “wicking” during forest fires. Wicking occurs when a narrow ravine or valley with vegetation conducts a wildfire from one side of a firebreak to the other.

WAPA funds can only be used to remove trees within minimum clearance distance requirements under the North American Electric Reliability Corporation standard, so the Forest Service plans to apply their own cutting and forest management practices to take care of those problem areas.

“The Forest Service wants to know where those are so they can have a management plan to go in and take care of those areas on their dime,” Morey said.

Above all, this year has enhanced communication and collaboration across the two organizations, laying the groundwork for efficient vegetation management in the future.

“When we work together and we’re good neighbors to each other, we can make good things happen,” said Burkett. 

Note: Barendsen is a public affairs specialist.

Uncleared vegetation, thick as the forest regrows

Photograph taken before vegetation management work on the Terry Ranch-to-North Park 230-kilovolt lines in Northern Colorado.

Cleared vegetation, with trees and shrubs removed

Photograph taken after vegetation management work on the Terry Ranch-to-North Park 230-kilovolt lines in Northern Colorado. In some locations, crews purposely left vegetation in environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, creeks and springs.

Last modified on September 12th, 2023