Over the last decade, wildfires have increased in frequency and size, posing significant risk to power lines and electrical infrastructure. Wildfires annually result in millions of dollars of damage to electrical equipment and cause power outages to homes and businesses. These fires can lead to preventable loss of life, homes, businesses and personal property. Lawsuits cost power utilities billions of dollars in payouts on liability claims. As a result, it is imperative for line contractors to take steps to protect workers, equipment and the public from wildfires and related hazards.
For a fire to burn, it needs oxygen, fuel and an ignition source, all generally found on job sites. Devastating wildfires are prone to occur with hot temperatures, low humidity, high winds, dry vegetation and hilly or mountainous topography that allow fires to strengthen. A large portion of the power grid is set in rural areas with vast ground vegetation, brush and dry grass, which makes them prime locations for a wildfire to spark.
What causes wildfires?
While wildfires can be ignited by lightning strikes or other natural means, the vast majority are caused by humans. Sources of ignition might include an unattended campfire, discarded cigarettes or electrical infrastructure. Wildfires are often ignited by downed power lines or equipment failure. Fallen power lines remain energized until the utility company or a line contractor takes action to disconnect the source of energy. If a downed wire encounters vegetation on the ground, it can start a fire. Vegetation also can catch on fire even if the line doesn’t fall. This occurs when plant life causes high-temperature electrical arcs between transformers and energized lines or equipment.
Aging equipment or failure can produce sparks capable of igniting a fire. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “The increasing demands for electricity and the increase in extreme weather conditions are putting unprecedented pressure on our electric grids. Often, this pressure leads to electrical component failures, which might ignite wildfires.”
Plan and be vigilant
Line contractors take precautions to minimize the risk of wildfire damage.
The first step is creating and implementing a wildfire safety plan. It should include prevention and mitigation tactics as well as preparative and protective measures in the event one occurs. More specifically, the plan should include an evacuation process; a strategy for protecting equipment such as trucks, tools and other assets; emergency contacts, such as the local fire department and all relevant government agencies; and a communication plan for keeping workers and the community informed.
Line contractors should also conduct regular equipment and infrastructure inspections to reduce the risk of fire damage. This includes checking trucks, tools and any other equipment for signs of wear and tear that could cause a spark. Additionally, it is important to ensure that flammable materials, such as gasoline or oil, are stored safely. These inspections will help line contractors identify potential hazards and take steps to mitigate them before they become a problem.
It is also important for line contractors to maintain a defensible space around equipment. This is an area of land surrounding equipment that has been cleared of vegetation and other flammable materials to create a buffer zone to help prevent a wildfire from spreading.
This is one of the most effective ways to protect against wildfire damage. A defensible space can be created by removing any dead or dying vegetation from around equipment storage areas, keeping grass mowed and well-watered, removing any tree limbs close to power lines or equipment and storing any flammable materials, such as fuel or propane tanks, a minimum of 30 feet away. This is an ongoing maintenance process but is highly effective. Keeping tools and equipment out of fire-prone areas can be helpful too.
Finally, it is important to stay informed about wildfire conditions by monitoring weather reports and paying attention to any warnings or alerts issued by local fire departments or government agencies.
Employers and workers should also have a plan for monitoring social media and news outlets for updates on wildfire conditions, staying in communication with other line contractors in the area to share information and updates, and being prepared to evacuate if necessary. Staying informed about wildfire conditions is crucial to protecting workers, equipment, personal property and the general public.