As wildfire conditions worsen in parts of Colorado, utility companies explain how they are coping

An inspection team, part of Xcel Energy’s fire mitigation plan, discovers external decomposition. Xcel Energy has already filed its wildfire mitigation plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which approved the plan.
Xcel Energy / Courtesy Photo

As the weather warms and Colorado dries up, the state’s Public Utilities Commission met with utility provider leaders on Friday, May 6 to discuss how they are adjusting to conditions that could lead to forest fires.

The Public Utilities Commission is responsible for regulating utilities for Coloradans, and its goal is to provide safe and reliable services to users across the state. Commissioners called the meeting to better understand how climate change and wildfires could impact public services. Ruth Marks, vice president of transmission maintenance for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., said part of Tri-State’s plan to reduce fire risk is a “fire safety awareness program.” situation,” which includes 360-degree cameras that allow managers to assess risk. .

“Especially in high-risk areas, we actually use things like Google Earth site visits,” Marks said. “When we perform a substation inspection, we have added criteria to our substation inspections to assess the risk of wildfire where the substation is located. For telecom sites, we use Google Earth assessments to see the amount of vegetation in the area. Again, (Tri-State does) site inspections and all to determine which application is appropriate to reduce prevention risk or protection risk.

Marks added that last week, utility leaders from across the state attended the Colorado Wildfire Summit to continue conversations about wildfire mitigation and share ideas on how to continue those efforts.

Brooke Trammell, Xcel Energy’s regional vice president for rates and regulatory affairs, said Xcel is implementing revised operational protocols during high fire risk days. This changes the way the interior energy grid actually operates on days when Colorado experiences extreme weather and includes monitoring cables and working closely with communities. The utility company also has a comprehensive multi-year wildfire plan, which has already been approved by the utility commission.

“It is designed to protect lives in homes and property in our service territory from the threat of wildfire,” Trammell said.

Sandra Johnson, director of strategic initiatives for Xcel, has done a lot of work for the utility provider regarding its wildfire mitigation plan. Johnson told the commission on Friday that Xcel’s mitigation plan focuses on expedited inspections of its equipment and identifying hotspots to pinpoint potential problems.

“(Xcel) also uses light detection and ranging for distribution assets to calculate wind force capabilities. Additionally, these new inspections include the use of drones where we identify potential defects that cannot be seen from the ground,” Johnson said. “We have an overview of our equipment, and that indicates things that we may have missed in the past. We also strive to make this more resilient and less susceptible to equipment failures that could lead to problems, and we do this by repairing and replacing equipment identified by these various inspection programs.

In addition to equipment, Johnson said Xcel is also improving its vegetation management. This includes clearing brush around the base of poles to limit any ignition that may come from a spark, and the company has introduced a new program that will trim trees in areas near residences or businesses if they pose a risk.

Currently, wildfire risk in Summit County is lower than in other parts of the state, according to a map from the Colorado State Forest Service that rates fire danger across Colorado. Much of the West Rim faces high-risk conditions, but most of Summit has a “lowest risk” distinction, with other small areas of land considered “low risk”. There is only one area in Summit County considered “moderate risk,” a stretch of unincorporated land west of Frisco.

There is no precipitation forecast for the county this week, and high temperatures are expected to hover in the 50s and 60s.


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