CEC races to get ahead of wildfire season
Last updated 4/6/2022 at Noon
Power lines downed in heavy winds have contributed to devastating fires — including the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire in Santiam Canyon.
Central Electric Cooperative (CEC), whose service area covers 5,300 square miles and includes parts of three national forests, spends large sums of money every year in pruning or removing trees that could fall on high-voltage lines. To put that in perspective, the City of Sisters is 1.88 square miles.
This is in addition to the cost of pole replacement and line upgrades. Over 95 percent of all CEC power distribution is on above-ground cable. Much of it runs through or near heavily treed areas, some of which cross deep canyons or steep hillsides.
Central Electric Cooperative invited The Nugget to an operational tour in Sisters Country late last month to get a behind-the-scenes look at their wildfire mitigation efforts.
The tour was led by Brad Wilson, director of operations and engineering, and Brent ten Pas, director of member and public relations of CEC. Their team is making a concerted effort to let the public know of their proactive work in minimizing risk to wildfire from equipment or line failure.
In early 2019, PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after fires caused by its powerlines burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Northern California and led to more than 100 deaths. It paid out $25.5 billion to resolve its fire-related liabilities, and expects to spend $11.7 billion on strategies to mitigate wildfire risk between 2019 and 2022.
Central Electric is a fraction the size of PG&E and is a customer-owned utility, not investor owned. That doesn’t exempt them from liability, but that is not what motivates CEC in getting a head start on tree thinning and removal in advance of the earlier-than-normal encroaching fire season. It’s just part of the everyday workings of the utility. Only the timing is different, ten Pas says, in the face of ongoing drought conditions.
The tour began at the Sisters Substation east of town on Bradley Road off Highway 126. It’s a four-story, otherworldly facility of transformers, conductors, relays, bus bars, insulators, and circuit breakers. One gets an eerie feeling standing within a few feet of equipment that handles 100 million buzzing volt amperes of electricity.
Inside the control room is a high-tech panorama of servers, switches, computers, and devices sensitive enough to know when a bird has perched on a line or a tree limb has broken off and is resting on the cable many miles away.
Imagine a tool that can discover problems on utility lines before outages, before power failures spark deadly wildfires, or before fears of wildfires prompt massive, preemptive power outages. Engineers at Texas A&M University have developed the tool, a one-of-a-kind diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA). Central Electric uses DFA2, the latest, greatest iteration.
The software interprets variations in electrical currents on utility circuits caused by deteriorating conditions or equipment. It warns utility operators to respond to particular problems before they cause outages and possibly spark fires. Wilson beams when describing its analytical powers that over time have been honed by years of anomaly data capture.
Next stop was the “after” in the before-and-after illustration. The tour explored a 13-mile section along Indian Ford Road heading out of Sisters toward Green Ridge. Here you could see the manicured avenue of power poles and lines that have an eight-foot easement on either side. As far as the eye could see, there were no overhanging limbs or leaning trees, or dead or dying trees to damage a line and spark a fire.
From there the tour drove to the Metolius River, past Camp Sherman, downstream a few miles from Wizard Falls. Central Electric has identified a high number of hazard trees that need to be taken down to increase fire resiliency. The trees identified for removal are located along a two-mile corridor of power lines that are required to remain free of vegetation, ten Pas said. “We have identified 76 trees that have crowded into the right-of-way, and what we need to do is remove those so we are following the minimum clearances set by National Electric Safety Code and Public Utility Commission Code.”
These particular lines supply power to Forest Service campgrounds, water systems, and private properties in the greater Camp Sherman area. A vegetation management proposal was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service in October. The permits are still pending and Wilson was unable to provide a new timeline.
The Nugget asked Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger of the Deschutes National Forest, for clarification on the application.
Reid answered: “Utility proposals are one of many proposals we receive for special uses including outfitter/guides, recreation events, cabin upgrades, and communications projects (in addition to the large suite of recreation, fuels, fire, facilities, timber, fisheries, roads, heritage, and wildlife projects) conducted annually.”
Jean Nelson-Dean, spokesperson for the Deschutes National Forest, said the permitting process is underway and the Forest Service is “looking at ways that they can complete the work as soon as possible. All clearances are complete with the exception of the Endangered Species Act wildlife consultation.”