How crews protect power poles from wildfire

Credit: Bonnie Shelton/ KTVB

Idaho Power crews created space around these power poles by removing weeds and brush. The Pony Complex fire burned right around them.


by Bonnie Shelton

Bio | Email | Follow: @BonnieKTVB


Posted on September 13, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Updated Friday, Sep 13 at 9:53 PM

ELMORE COUNTY -- A number of large wildfires have charred thousands of acres in Idaho this summer. Flames not only threatened homes and businesses, but also poles and structures that bring power to people who live nearby.

That's why Idaho Power crews are hard a work creating space around expensive structures to protect them from the flames.

North of Mountain Home, transmission lines run from the Boise bench all the way to Twin Falls. The lines feed electricity to hundreds of thousands of people.

"We clear the sagebrush around the structures to protect them," said Idaho Power Transmission Utility Arborist Wayne Olson.

It's a tough job to protect lines in the desert north of Mountain Home where wildfires can spark and move quickly. Just this summer, the Pony Complex ripped through, charring close to 150,000 acres.

"Our challenge is trying to keep our structures clear so they don't burn down in fires," said Olson.
Crews work with machines and by hand to remove plants and brush from around utility poles. They started using the technique in 2006. At first, crews were only creating about 10 feet of space around poles, but they're now going back and creating up to 20 feet.

"It's been really helpful," said Olson

So helpful, crews report they've only lost one pole due to wildfires in areas where they've done that.
Olson added it's also saving Idaho Power customers money. It only costs about $40 to create the defensible space, but if a large transmission power structure is burned, it can cost up to $30,000 to fix.

"This is the most cost effective way that we've found," said Olson.

Olson told us that despite efforts to create space free from brush and weeds around poles, if a fire is burning hot and fast it will still damage utility structures.

About a dozen poles were lost in the Beaver Creek Fire this summer. Olson said a wall of flames moved uphill fast, burning down the poles in its path. It cut off power to the Hailey area for a short time, but crews were able to turn the lights back on using a back-up distribution line. It took several days to fix the poles.

Olson added that many poles and power structures are made of wood because it's been the most cost effective option over the years, but crews now replace poles damaged in wildfires with steel to make them more durable.