Illustration - wildfire appreciation month

With wildfire season approaching, WAPA focuses on risk management, mitigation

As the country recognizes National Wildfire Awareness Month during May, members of the Western Area Power Administration have worked this year to increase knowledge and awareness of wildfire risk and better understand potential wildfire impacts on WAPA’s infrastructure and transmission system. 

In recent years, wildfires have increased in both frequency and intensity. The Department of Energy reports that between 2016 and 2020, federal government spending averaged $2.5 billion annually toward fire suppression efforts on federal lands alone. Last October, DOE announced the award of Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships, or GRIPs, of nearly $3.5 billion toward 58 projects nationwide to strengthen electric grid resilience and reliability. Some of these grants are geared toward reducing the probability of utility-caused wildfires.

As WAPA’s Enterprise Risk Management Program Manager, Jason Mauch works with subject matter experts to identify and evaluate the greatest risks across the organization. One of those key risks for WAPA is wildfire. 

“For me, it’s about understanding how risk around wildfires has changed and evolved,” he said. “We’ve reviewed wildfire cases in numerous states, and it’s not just a forest issue anymore. Wildfires can happen in suburban areas as growth sprawls into fire-prone landscapes known as the Wildland-Urban interface.”  

Climate change is impacting the natural environment and where and when wildfires occur, turning the traditional view of a fire season into a year-round concern.  

“This has required that utilities and transmission line operators change our understanding of wildfires and how we address them,” Mauch added. “A key consideration will need to be identifying areas of increased wildfire risk and looking for ways to reduce the risk. Hardening portions of the WAPA system might even be required.” 

Mauch, who has worked in the energy industry for more than 20 years and most recently spent 15 years at Xcel Energy focusing on corporate risks, emphasized that the fire season has simply changed. Because of this, he works to ensure that WAPA incorporates the latest insights from the U.S. Forest Service and others fire science research to better quantify the risk of wildfire across WAPA’s assets.

“In the recent past in places like the Upper Great Plains region, there would be snow on the ground through the spring. However, now we’re seeing instances in January and February with little to no snow cover,” Mauch said. “With the winds and dry vegetation, those areas can be more susceptible to wildland fires. We need to recognize that regardless of where we are located across WAPA, wildfire is a risk, and it can happen any time of the year and the conditions for wildfires can change very rapidly.” 

It’s this ongoing change of wildfire threats that keeps fellow employee Ricardo Velarde up at night. Velarde, a vegetation and roads specialist with WAPA’s Sierra Nevada region, has lived through wildfires in his home state of California. His concern for these catastrophic fires keeps him focused on ensuring WAPA is prepared for wildfire season. 

“I’ve never had a job where I’m in bed listening to wind move trees around and thinking, ‘Did I do everything I could? Did I catch every tree I could that could damage lines if they fall over?’” he said. “Even though May is National Wildfire Awareness Month, for us, its year around.” 

In 2018, Velarde faced wildfires front and center. In late July that year, with average temperatures hovering around 109 degrees, sparks from a defective trailer being pulled on a highway in northern California ignited a burn that destroyed more than 229,000 acres of land. That fire ultimately spread throughout communities in and around Redding, California. The fire went on to claim the lives of seven, including three firefighters, and level more than 1,000 homes. 

“The Carr Fire ended up taking out several WAPA lines and towers. We worked with line crews to protect several wood poles throughout Trinity County that were under threat and coordinated with vegetation crews to help spray fire retardants on those poles,” Velarde said.  

The (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) also contacted WAPA to use our rights of way as fire breaks to hold back the fire’s encroachment.

“This allowed CALFIRE to more easily use bulldozers to clear the WAPA rights of way to bare ground, which helped to slow the spread of the fire,” Velarde added. “Years after that fire, we continued to remove thousands of fire-damaged trees that are now hazards to the transmission lines in the area.” 

Velarde, a 15-year veteran of WAPA, highlighted that the Carr Fire, and others throughout the West, have resulted in tougher compliance demands from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. These mandates from the federal government require utility providers to maintain stringent oversight of their transmission vegetation management plans, which aim to prevent sustained outages through vegetation management. 

“For WAPA, implementing our vegetation management plan has the secondary benefit of reducing wildfire risk by preventing ignitions of encroaching vegetation and reducing fuels within our rights of way,” Velarde said. “WAPA focuses its efforts in high fire threat areas.

WAPA also uses a variety of technology platforms to assess wildfire risks and prioritize maintenance work. These include light detection and ranging, or LiDAR systems, aerial imagery, drones, infrared and corona cameras. WAPA also actively removes off-right-of-way hazard trees to reduce fall-in threats, clears roadside brush to improve access and prevent ignition, and protects facilities by hardening surrounding areas. 

“For WAPA, I ensure we have everything in place to follow those NERC guidelines,” Velarde said. 

With respect to fire mitigation and fire suppression, WAPA’s abilities are limited to its footprint. Even coordinated pre-planning efforts between WAPA and other agencies cannot fully prevent a wildfire. It often comes down to situational awareness and knowledge of fire-risk factors, like the weather and vegetation conditions.

“What’s surprising to many are the historical statistics on the cause of wildfires, as many people assume that electrical lines are causing most of these wildfires. The reality is that 80 to 90 percent of all wildfires are human caused, and usually as a result of carelessness,” Mauch pointed out. 

“A lot of things people do daily can pose a wildfire risk, so awareness and planning are key. Utilizing situational awareness and taking steps to mitigate ignition risk are important. Something as simple as avoiding a campfire when it’s extremely windy, not performing work tasks that might emit heat or sparks and not running a lawnmower when vegetation is extremely dry and humidity levels are low,” he said. 

Velarde appreciates the public awareness National Wildfire Awareness Month highlights. 

“It’s great because wildfires are on the forefront of my mind and it’s getting hot in California already. I’m already thinking of some additional trees we need to remove.” 

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