Electric utilities have elevated their response to the growing risk of wildfire
by Allen Best
Earth Day this year had red-flag weather along Colorado’s Front Range. It wasn’t just the temperature, which hit 89 at Denver International Airport, a record for April 22. Wind gusts of 50 to 75 mph were predicted – and realized – and the humidity was just 5%.
From his office at United Power in Brighton, Bryant Robbins was closely monitoring conditions, particularly where the Great Plains begin wrinkling into the Rocky Mountains. Using information from the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado State University, United’s 30-page fire preparedness plan had identified those first four or five miles of foothills as the most dangerous for wildfires. That service territory includes many exurban homes in the area between Central City and Nederland.
“These fires have already started,” fretted Robbins, United’s chief operating officer, while awaiting the predicted winds. “We usually don’t see them until later in the year. I am highly concerned about our lack of moisture, especially in the foothills west of Arvada, and I’m just worried sick about that.”
Other electrical utilities have similarly been growing wary. They appear to be growing their budgets to remove vegetation from along distribution and transmission lines. They’re ponying up more money for fast-advancing technology such as aerial photography and lidar (light detection and ranging) to find problems in electrical wires and conductors before they can cause wildfires. This isn’t just guys driving down the road, doing visual inspections.
The Marshall Fire of late December has only added to their worries. It provided evidence of a wildfire season that, at least compared to much of the last century, has grown longer and less predictable.
Now comes a spring with drought maps yet again showing most of Colorado in hues of brown and, in the San Luis Valley, red.
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