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Lower Risk Of Wildfires Along T&D Systems Long Term

Lower Risk Of Wildfires Along T&D Systems Long Term

The catastrophic fires that have struck the U.S. states of California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in recent years are proving to be part of a new era and no longer isolated occurrences. While not as prominently reported, this theme has been repeated throughout the West, including Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

When catastrophic fires occur, it is evident the fire-risk regime utilities operate in has changed significantly. Utility vegetation managers must fully assess and comprehend the risks and how quickly risk is changing to be successful in managing infrastructure and vegetation to protect it from fire and ensure ignition risks are removed from the system.

Western Fire Risk

As Western droughts persist and vegetation continues to be inadequately managed across the landscape, pandemic population shifts have complicated the risk equation. According toa study published on Dec. 8, 2022, in the Frontiers in Human Dynamics journal, Flocking to Fire: How Climate and Natural Hazards Shape Human Migration Across the United States, more people call the interior West their home now, and the result has been an expanded wildland-urban interface (WUI), significantly increasing the population and number of structures at risk from wildfire.

For example, in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, where about 155,000 people reside, more than 34,000 private properties are at high risk of catastrophic fire, according to the Insurance Journal. So, even though New Mexico does not have as large of a population as California, a high proportion of its
population is at risk.

This population expansion into rural areas further complicates fuel treatment where a century of fire suppression and management policies has resulted in a highly combustible buildup of dead and live fuel. Utilities also are under increased pressure to provide highly reliable electric service to meet the demand of the shifting population of remote employees working from their homes.

While no one can put a value on life, there are quantifiable costs to loss of structures and fire suppression. For example, 2021 marked the most expensive year for annual federal suppression, with costs nearing US$4.5 billion, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Property values have risen dramatically, with some Western states experiencing 40% increases in property value since summer 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As property values have dramatically increased in some Western states, it is presumed that costs associated with fire risk will only increase in future fire events. The values associated with fire risk today are vastly different than those from merely two years ago.

Utility-caused fires have been exceptionally destructive to life and property in recent years. Despite utilities’ efforts to manage grow-in risk and hazardous trees, danger-tree failure-related electrical ignitions continue to occur — with devastating impacts. Consider the Dixie Fire in California that raged across five counties from July 13, 2021, until it was declared contained on Oct. 24, 2021. All told, more than 963,000 acres (389,712 hectares) burned, with one fatality and about 1500 structures lost. The fire was the first to cross the Sierra Nevada — and it did so twice. The cause of the Dixie Fire is alleged to have been a tree failure resulting in contact with energized conductors.

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