City council approves utility wildfire mitigation plan

29 December 2020

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USA – In a unanimous motion last week, the Healdsburg City Council approved the 2021 Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plan, a plan that aims to eliminate the risk of electric utility-caused wildfires through several key elements including vegetation management, line inspections and hardening, equipment maintenance, staffing, de-energization when needed and customer notification and education.

The city of Healdsburg’s electric service area includes areas that are in the city’s wildland urban interface (WUI), sections of town that are considered to be a higher wildfire threat. These high-fire threat WUI areas include Fitch Mountain, the Healdsburg Ridge and the northern most portions of the city’s service territory.

These areas cover roughly one-third of the city’s entire electric service territory.

Most of the city’s electric lines and facilities are undergrounded — 14.5 miles of it to be exact — but there are still around 7.5 miles of overhead lines and utilities.

In response to the slew of wildfires that Northern and Southern California have endured over the years, Senate Bill 901 was enacted in 2018. The bill requires every state electric utility to prepare a wildfire mitigation plan and requires all public and investor-owned utilities to maintain and operate its electrical facilities in a way that reduces the risk of utility caused wildfires.

Additionally, the public owned utility must prepare and present the plan to its governing body annually and file the plan with the California Wildfire Safety Advisory Board.

The city of Healdsburg electric utility department’s plan is similar to the 2020 plan and includes the core preventative measures of inspections, tree trimming and adjustments to system safety and protection settings, according to Terry Crowley, the electric utility department director.

“The plan has a lot of specific things, but the key elements (of the plan) are vegetation management, obviously we want to trim the trees and keep them away from the overhead wires, staff inspections of lines, maintenance — which we do during inspection when we find things that need to be fixed — staffing and ongoing training for staff, and de-energization of lines if needed,” Crowley said.

Customer notification is also a key part of the plan. He said in the event of line de-energization, communication with customers and having a plan in place for notifying folks and getting power back online is a vital aspect to their work.

“All of those things that were good items to do in 2020 are going to remain in the 2021 plan and we are going to focus in on those,” Crowley said.

Additional work to prepare for the 2021 fire season include the installation of non-fuse expulsion fuses and staff research on best utility methods and practices.

“As that blows it can rain down hot metal onto grassy areas and we are going to replace those fuses in the fire area with fuses that do not do that,” Crowley said. “We’ll also adopt procedures that make sense for Healdsburg and continue to look at best practices to see what we can do to improve upon it (Wildfire risk mitigation).”

How effective was the 2020 wildfire mitigation plan?

“In the 2020 plan it included metrics. The 2020 plan was the first plan, so we didn’t really have a way to review what our past practices were. Now looking back on what we did over the past fire season we can look at these metrics and see how well (the plan did) in mitigating (fire risk). We’ve developed these five metrics with the 2020 plan and will carry these five metrics forward into the 2021 plan,” Crowley explained.

The first metric they look at is whether or not they started any wildfires.

“There were no ignitions in 2020, so that’s a good thing,” Crowley noted.

Inspection records and maintenance is another critical metric.

“All of the inspections were done prior to the fire season with priority maintenance work completed during the fire season as well. Additionally, we did major system hardening projects. We used to have some older conductors and we replaced a large portion of that that was on the north of Fitch Mountain Road. We had old copper conductors and we replaced that with steel-reinforced aluminum conductors and replaced some of the existing poles with taller, stronger poles and we spread the wires out,” he said

Vegetation management is also a significant part of wildfire mitigation and is the third metric. According to the agenda item report, the city’s contracted tree trimmer completed the annual tree maintenance and trimming work by June 30, 2020 and performed additional hazard tree removal from June 8 – 11. A hazard tree is either a diseased or dying tree or a tree that is at risk of falling into a line.

The fourth plan metric is overhead equipment failure and Crowley reported that no overhead equipment failures in the high fire threat areas occurred in 2020.

Their final metric is outage response time. For 2020 outage response time ranged from 17 to 60 minutes and the average response time was 41 minutes.

Crowley said for the next fire season they may decide to pre-staff employees, similar to what fire departments do prior to a wind event or during a Red Flag Warning.

Following Crowley’s report on the plan Councilmember Ozzy Jimenez asked what could be done to reduce outage or work response times. Crowley once again pointed to the idea of upstaffing utility workers prior to a wind event. Since a certain amount of overtime is built into utility worker’s schedules, this type of preposition and upstaffing could be counted as overtime.

During the public comment period, resident Charlie Duffy asked if the seven miles of overhead lines can be undergrounded, especially those that are near Fitch Mountain.

Crowley said they are looking at that as a long-term solution, however, undergrounding comes with a hefty price tag of $2 to $3 million per line mile.

Next steps

Now that the city council has adopted the wildfire mitigation plan electric utility city staff can start working on the requirements and mitigation measures in the plan and changes to the plan can be made anytime.

Throughout the fire season city staff will track the aforementioned plan metrics and provide a report to council on their progress at the end of 2021.

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