Power company footing bill for East Fork wildland crew
A downed power line in brush reported on the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch web site might be the only public clue as to what caused a fatal fire that destroyed scores of homes in Walker on Nov 17, 2020.
The same day the Mountain View Fire raged south of Douglas County, East Fork Fire Protection District trustees heard a proposal to hire a team of wildland firefighters whose primary task will be to clear brush from around the base of power company infrastucture.
NV Energy does not serve Walker, but the possibility that high winds and power lines might combine to cause devastating wildland fires doesn’t recognize state lines.
Chief Mark Regan representing NV Energy said the company has had a program to remove branches from power lines for a quarter century, but has never cleared vegetation from around poles.
The Nov. 8, 2018, fire that destroyed Paradise, Calif., has been blamed on power lines affected by wind. That prompted NV Energy, Nevada fire officials and the Legislature to approve a bill designed to harden utility infrastructure and clear brush from around the base of power poles.
Senate Bill 329 requires NVEnergy to develop a plan and conduct fuels management work in their easements, East Fork Chief Tod Carlini said.
Trustees approved a $4.5 million agreement with NV Energy to hire a crew of 10 wildland firefighters, and purchase an engine, water tender and a chipper rig.
While the focus of the crew will be to reduce brush in the power company’s right of way, they will also be available to fight fires under the theory that any fire is a danger to power company infrastructure.
“NV Energy has indicated that any wildfire is a threat to their infrastructure,” Carlini said. “We would receive the benefits of expanded fire suppression.”
Carlini said there will be instances where the crew will be used for projects in other areas of the state.
“We would be the front line,” Carlini said. “At the end of the day, this will expand our wildland firefighting ability on a daily basis.”
The Natural Disaster Protection Plan prepared by NV Energy was approved by the Public Utilities Commission in August.
NV Energy Fire Mitigation Specialist Mark Regan said that while the plan deals with all sorts of natural disasters, wildland fires are the most frequent and pose the greatest risk.
While the company has been trimming trees around power lines for 25 years, it has never removed vegetation around the base of poles. The company hopes to clear as many as 12,000 power poles of brush, which could take a dozen years to complete.
On Nov. 17, when Regan spoke to fire district trustees there were six fires in the region due to high winds.
Genoa and Jacks Valley are included in a high wildfire risk area.
As part of the program, the power company has employed 70 firefighters across the state in 2020 and hopes to have 150-170 working in 2021.
The East Fork crew will be hired and supervised by the district but will be paid by NV Energy.
The company has also implemented a policy of controlled outages when high winds threaten to start fires.
Public safety outages de-energize power lines during extreme weather events to prevent them from igniting fires. The program affects Douglas County residents living along the Sierra foothills and at Lake Tahoe.