Addressing Wildfire Risks

28 January 2019

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AUSTRALIA – Fires are not limited to a single precondition and source. Check out the following examples published on Nov. 15, 2018, by The New York Times: “One huge fire was caused by a spark set off by a man with a hammer, working on a fence post in a field of dry vegetation. Another began at a backyard barbecue. A 2007 fire on Santa Catalina Island was ignited by workers cutting metal wires with a torch.”

As manager of Asset Strategy and Performance at United Energy starting in 2012, I became more than familiar with the issues related to bushfires.

Easily ignitable vegetation, parched by prolonged drought and strong winds, can create very unfavorable conditions conducive to transforming a spark into a fire of significant energy. The speed at which such energy is released causes bushfires to be difficult to contain and its consequences devastating, rendering fire prevention endeavors so critical.

Australia has unique bushfire challenges presented by its climate, which is conducive to prolonged spells of high heat and low humidity, and its vegetation, particularly the savannahs in the Northwest and blue gum trees in the Southeast. Bushfires, on an average, cause more loss of lives and properties than other natural hazards in Australia.

Weather and vegetation conditions that create HBRAs (High Bushfire Risk Areas), with easily ignitable tinder and low presence of natural barriers to spread of fire, have been behind fires across the continent. Some of the fires have had extreme consequences, for example, the death of 173 people in the bushfires of Black Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009.

Fire Prevention and Mitigation

Informed by inquiries into such fires, the 2009 Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission recommendations for instance, fire prevention planning and mitigation in Australia has grown to be a structured and integrated effort that brings together regulators (safety and economic), ministries and government bureaus, industries, first responders and the public to prevent catastrophic loss of life and property.

The specifics vary from province to province, but the structured and integrated approach to bushfire prevention is recognized and maintained across the whole of Australia. Measures taken against bushfires vary from installing electric barbeques and making them free for public use, thus eliminating the need for open fires; to continuous public education and awareness; to specifically modified utility asset management strategies, work procedures and operating plans. Practise has proven that these measures work the best when employed together.

Framework for Electrical Asset Owners

Within the broader initiative, electric utilities in Australia have responsibilities to prevent bushfires. The regulatory framework in Victoria, Australia, is well defined and progressive.

The Australian Energy Regulator controls electricity networks and covered gas pipelines in all jurisdictions, except Western Australia, and sets the amount of revenue that network businesses can recover from customers for using these networks. Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) is a technical and safety regulator responsible for the safe generation, supply and use of electricity, gas and pipelines in Victoria.

Under the Electricity Safety Act (1998), owners and operators of electrical assets in Victoria are required to provide a five-yearly plan, which should comply with the Electricity Safety (Bushfire Mitigation) Regulations (2013), for approval by ESV.

Electrical asset owner/operator Bushfire Mitigation Plan (BMP) describes preventative strategies, procedures and processes to monitor, investigate, report, analyze and implement programs to mitigate the risk of fire associated with supply networks.

BMP applies to all operations and activities that could affect bushfire conditions. Where applicable, it incorporates activities of all in-house personnel as well as agents, consultants and contractors of the company engaged in operation and maintenance of the networks under the Electricity Safety Management Scheme (ESMS). The requirements under BMP constitute the minimum standard to be met and may be supplemented by local procedures.

BMP is subjected to annual internal and external review to provide an objective and robust framework for its continued development, which includes the adoption of emerging technologies and innovative ideas.

FPP is, therefore, to be integrated into the ESMS, which is further integrated into the respective Asset Management Plan and associated CAPEX and OPEX budgets, ultimately driving the five-year price (rate) resets.

Additional entities in crafting and implementing specific measures include BOM (Bureau of Meteorology), for providing weather data and forecasts; CFA (Country Fire Authority) for monitoring the conditions and declaring the start of fire season as well as the TFB days (Total Fire Ban days); the Department of Primary Industries for ensuring access and escape routes; the Department of Sustainability and Environment for providing mapping data to emergency response agencies’ incident management teams; the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management, facilitated by the Emergency Management Australia, for developing national bushfire awareness campaigns; the State, working with municipal councils, for ensuring that appropriate criteria are used for bushfire shelters; and the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, for ensuring that the national curriculum incorporates the history of bushfires in Australia and that existing curriculum areas such as geography, science and environmental studies include elements of bushfire education.

Under the umbrella of Victoria’s Bushfire Safety Policy, the plans are developed, Emergency and Incident Management processes coordinated, audited and refined, and fireground response prescribed to effectively militate against severe risks from fires, whatever their cause.

The role of electrical asset owners is not only limited to the prevention of fires, but also extends to fire management and includes providing information such as access distance, coordinating necessary power outages and providing power supply for CFA, if necessary by mobile units. Seamless coordination is the key. The Emergency Management Liaison Officer has a pivotal role and the person’s name and contacts are prominently listed in every BMP.

Electrical Assets and bushfires

Electrical assets can cause bushfires directly from electric arc or from molten metal falling on extremely dry and hot tinder, such as dry blue gum leaves, pine needles or grass.

The methodology applied to ensure mitigation of bushfire risk includes a full life cycle approach for the design, construction, commissioning, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of network assets. Above and beyond good asset management practices, which include proactive addressing of upcoming asset end-of-life liabilities, specific BMP asset management strategies are driven by the analysis of asset condition trends identified through the general maintenance and replacement program, together with the analysis provided in the detailed System Incident Reports and Defective Apparatus Reports, which combine to inform the ongoing development and implementation.

Although the largest portion of electric fire risks comes from distribution networks, transmission networks warrant development of specific strategies.

Fire Prevention Strategies for Transmission Network

Targeted asset replacement examples:

1) Replacement of all air-blast circuit breakers

2) Phase-out of bulk oil circuit breakers

3) Fitting and maintenance of conductor vibration dampers that extend conductor life through reduction of fatigue and wear caused by vibration

4) Replacement of 220-kV insulators with identified issues related to mechanical wear on insulator string fittings

Altered maintenance program examples:

1) Increased inspection frequency for transmission towers and lines, reducing inspection interval to below 37 months in HBRA

2) Increased inspection frequency for transmission towers and lines, reducing inspection interval to below 61 months in LBRA (Low Bushfire Risk Area)

3) The Vegetation Management Plan is provided annually to ESV for acceptance. The plan includes procedures for the cyclic inspection, customer notification and consultation, and the pruning and removal of vegetation to maintain the prescribed clearance spaces

Altered network operation examples:

1) Suppression of auto-reclosing

2) Deactivation of auto-reclosing

3) Altering of protection settings to minimize fault energy during TFB days

4) Turning off power to prevent fire starts in extreme conditions

Embracing new technologies:

1) Use of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology for line and tree mapping

Fire Prevention Strategies for Distribution Network

Targeted asset replacement examples:

1) Use of concrete poles for complex or key assets such as a pole type substation which provides protection against damage from bushfire events, white ants and rot

2) Fitting of low-voltage spreaders in HBRA to reduce risk of constructor clashing, which has been identified as presenting a higher risk of bushfire ignition

3) The application of a ‘stretch’-post insulator, which provides an increased clearance distance for new assets

4) Replacing surge diverters of makes and types that present higher risk of bushfire ignition

5) Expulsion Drop Out (EDO) fuse replacement

6) Bird/animal proofing of complex HV structures

7) Cross-arm replacement

8) High-voltage, pin-type insulator replacement

9) Conductor replacement

10) Neutral screened-service replacement

11) Installation of SWER (Single Wire Earth Return) Automatic Circuit Reclosers

12) High-voltage, Aerial Bundled Cable (ABC) replacement

13) Placement of armor rods and vibration dampers

Powerline Replacement Fund:

The Victorian government, through the Powerline Bushfire Safety Program, is replacing bare-wire powerlines in areas of highest bushfire consequence. The program’s ‘Powerline Replacement Fund’ makes available up to 200 million Australian dollars for bare-wire powerline replacement over a 10-year period within Victoria. Priority is being given to replacing powerlines that:

* are part of a rural or regional electricity network

* are located in the areas of highest bushfire risk

* support the State’s emergency management priorities; and

* are cost effective and support the State in maximizing the reach of the investment

Altered maintenance program examples:

1) All HBRA poles inspection frequency increased 40% minimum

2) All LBRA poles inspection frequency increased 30% minimum

3) All recorded HBRA overhang trees – arboreal assessment by Nov. 1 each year

4) The Vegetation Management Plan is provided annually to ESV for acceptance. The Plan includes procedures for the cyclic inspection, customer notification and consultation, and the pruning and removal of vegetation to maintain the prescribed clearance spaces

Altered network operation examples:

1) Suppression of auto-reclosing

2) Deactivation of auto-reclosing

3) Enhanced feeder protection & control

5) Protection scheme settings for TFB and Code Red days

6) Disconnection of all defective privately owned electric lines that are not fire safe on TFB and Code Red days

7) Turning off power to prevent fire starts in extreme conditions

Embracing new technologies:

1) Use of LIDAR technology for line and tree mapping

2) Insulated Cable Technologies

3) Decision analytics for critical infrastructure

4) Modeling for network visibility through specific and aggregate use of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) data

5) Employing Dynamic Risk Assessment methodologies

Network Contingency Plans & Strategies

During previous fire events, Emergency Management Teams had utilized a number of strategies and contingency plans to either prevent asset damage or provide resources for post-fire recovery activities. These included the following:

* consideration of switching lines out because of electrical flashover caused by smoke,

* patrol of lines before restoration from tripping,

* dispatch of operational crews to confirm asset security after fire front passes,

* resource planning and staging, which includes both labor and materials

Management of Fire Events

Fire events reported to electrical asset owners by customers, personnel or fire control agencies are sent to ESV in accordance with its ‘Distribution Business Electrical Safety Performance Reporting Guide’.

In the event of significant bushfires, distribution asset owners, together with other distribution businesses, have processes and procedures in place for a mutual-aid program. Mutual-aid programs are a requirement of the Distribution Code of Practice and these resources are managed and coordinated through Integrated Response and Contingency System.

A committee of senior managers from the distribution companies oversees this process. An emergency response plan has been formulated. It includes a set of standard procedures, the nomination of key personnel, communication arrangements, other support agencies and contractor lists. In the event of a major incident and the implementation of the plan, the committee would establish strategies as necessary for the:

* coordination of the response and electricity supply recovery,

* media releases,

* dealings with government; and

* any other matters considered appropriate.

The role of electric distribution provider will be one of support to the combating agencies, such as State Emergency Service, CFA, Melbourne Fire Brigade and Victorian Police in matters relating to electricity supply.

If a disaster is declared by a Fire/Disaster Coordinator and roadblocks erected, the distribution company’s operational personnel, authorized to switch the network, must not enter the restricted area. All operations must be performed external to the restricted area.

Arrangements may be made between the Fire/Disaster Coordinator and the Customer and Energy Operations Team Manager to enable operations within the restricted area. This agreement must hold the safety of personnel paramount and personnel involved must be consulted and their agreement to the arrangements confirmed before entry is undertaken.

Fire Events Investigation & Analysis

All fires related to network asset are investigated and reported to ESV in accordance with its ‘Distribution Business Electrical Safety Performance Reporting Guide’. These events are recorded and analyzed to identify network asset management strategies that may result in the mitigation of these events. The ‘Enhanced Network Safety’ strategies have been developed and implemented following analysis of fire incidents.

Transferable Skills

Crises related to fires are not limited to Australia. In the U.S., for example, recent fires have caused state regulators to rethink fire mitigation strategies. The California Public Utilities Commission has opened proceedings on utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans. Sharing mitigation strategies among utilities globally will better enable our industry to recognize and address fire risk.

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