As wildfire conditions worsen for parts of Colorado, utility companies explain how they’re adapting

Eliza Noe
Summit Daily
An inspection crew, part of Xcel Energy’s fire mitigation plan, finds external decay. 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 gets drier, the state’s public utilities commission met with leaders of utility providers Friday, May 6, to discuss how they are adjusting to the conditions that could lead to wildfires.

The public utilities commission is charged with regulating utilities for Coloradans, and its goal is to provide safe and reliable services to users across the state. Commissioners called the meeting in order to get a better understanding as to how climate change and wildfire conditions could impact utilities. Ruth Marks, transmission maintenance vice president for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., said that part of Tri-State’s plan to reduce fires risk is a “situational awareness program,” which includes 360-degree cameras that allow managers to assess risk.

“Particularly in areas with higher risk, we actually use things like Google Earth site visits,” Marks said. “When we do a substation inspection, we’ve added criteria to our substation inspections to evaluate wildfire risk where the substation is located. For telecommunications sites, we use Google Earth evaluations to see how much vegetation is in the area. Again, (Tri-State does) site inspections and all of that to determine what the appropriate application is to either lower the prevention risk or the protection risk.”

Marks added that last week, utilities leaders from across the state participated in the Colorado Wildfire Summit to continue conversations around wildfire mitigation and share ideas about how to continue those efforts.

Brooke Trammell, Xcel Energy’s regional vice president for rates and regulatory affairs, said that Xcel is implementing revised operational protocols during days with high fire risk. This changes the way that the inner energy grid is actually operating on days where Colorado is experiencing extreme weather and includes monitoring wires and working closely with communities. The utilities company also has a multiyear comprehensive wildfire plan, which has already been approved by the public utilities commission.

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

Sandra Johnson, the 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 accelerated inspections of its equipment and identifying hot spots to identify potential issues.

“(Xcel is) also using light detection and ranging for distribution assets to calculate wind strength capabilities. Also, these new inspections include the use of drones where we identify potential defects that can’t be seen from the ground,” Johnson said. “We get a bird’s-eye view on our equipment, and it points to things that we may have missed in the past. We’re also focusing on making this more resilient and less likely to experience equipment failures that could lead to issues, and we’re doing this by repairing and replacing equipment identified through those various inspection programs.”

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

Currently, Summit County’s wildfire risk is lower compared to other parts of the state, according to a map from the Colorado State Forest Service that assesses the risk of fire across Colorado. Much of the Western Slope is facing high-risk conditions, but most of Summit is at a “lowest risk” distinction, with other small areas of land being considered “low risk.” There is only one area in Summit County being considered “moderate risk,” a portion of unincorporated land west of Frisco.

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

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