Vegetation Management

For more information: View the trailer to the documentary Fire in Paradise, which follows the Camp Fire in California in 2018, started by a spark from a power line.  Full access to the documentary is limited to subscribers to Netflix.

You may also view a documentary look at the Camp Fire one year later on PBS’s Frontline.

Left: Before a right-of-way was cleared in the Twin Lakes area. Right: After the right-of-way was cleared.

We’re working to reduce the risk posed by vegetation near power lines in our service territory.

SDCEA board approves rider to aid in wildfire mitigation

Wildfire Mitigation Rider Notice

To help protect and sustain local communities by helping to avoid a catastrophic wildfire, the Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA) board of directors has approved a $6/month Wildfire Mitigation rate rider beginning in January 2021 on SDCEA monthly bills. The first bill with the charge will be received by consumers in February 2021.

Wildfire mitigation is something in which everyone who has an account on our system has a stake. If a catastrophic wildfire burns in our region, the environment in which you like to hike, hunt, fish, raft, kayak, or simply enjoy from a distance, could be forever changed. The impacts of a wildfire are far-reaching and threaten human life, wildlife, air quality, our ecosystem, our power supply, and our economy.

Three of the five largest wildfires in Colorado history are burning in 2020, the effects of which are being felt statewide. The Decker and Hayden Creek fires burned locally in recent years, causing a great impact on those who live near those burn scars. Our region remains at further risk for an even larger, severe wildfire.

The threat of wildfire is high locally due to diseased forests and drought conditions. Electric lines in contact with vegetation can reach a temperature of 32,000 degrees — a temperature high enough to ignite any tree, house, shed, grass, or anything else near the line. Winds that blow in our area could then spread a resulting wildfire very quickly, as seen recently with several wildfires in the state.

Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on vegetation management, at current funding levels through the SDCEA budget, it would take SDCEA more than 20 years to effectively clear regional electric lines. The SDCEA board, faced with this reality, opted to close this funding gap to address the urgent need to clear potential wildfire ignition sources by voting to support a rate rider to gain adequate funding to combat this issue.

Through the wildfire mitigation program made possible by additional funding from the rider, SDCEA will significantly increase efforts to reduce the risk of ignition and a resulting wildfire from our electrical system. These efforts cannot be accomplished via current vegetation management (maintenance) budget levels.

The rate rider will be used for a limited time and for a specific and necessary purpose for accelerated funding of vegetation removal to mitigate the threat of wildfires on our system. Funding raised through this rider will be used only for wildfire mitigation and will not be absorbed in SDCEA’s general operating budget. The board approved a $6 per month rate rider for 2021, with an incremental increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10 (2025), which will remain in effect until the board determines that this wildfire mitigation rider is no longer necessary. The rider will be charged to each service account (security lighting and line retention excluded) on our system. The wildfire mitigation rider will be reviewed periodically for effectiveness by the Board. The fee will ‘sunset’ or be removed from SDCEA bills when the wildfire mitigation rider is no longer necessary.

Even if your home is not located “in the trees,” you may still be at risk for a wildfire. Envision Chaffee County’s wildfire mitigation plan indicates areas where there are no trees are of great concern for a fast-moving wildfire due to low moisture content vegetation.

Your property may also lose power during a wildfire for days, weeks or months, even if it is not in the direct path of a wildfire, as transmission lines are de-energized or damaged by the blaze.

If you have not already experienced the impacts of a wildfire yourself, imagine a wildfire in your neighborhood or community. You or your neighbors may not have a chance to go home and grab things of value to you before your home burns down. Even if your property is insured, it will take you years to literally rebuild your life.

Additional Considerations

SDCEA’s Liability: Many of our members have been requested to remove vegetation on their property by their homeowner’s insurance company to mitigate the threat of wildfire damages.

SDCEA is also actively working with our insurance carrier to mitigate the threat of wildfire damages. SDCEA could be held liable in the case of a wildfire sparked by one of our electric lines – potentially responsible for the loss of human life and property. The resulting financial settlement of this liability would likely significantly increase the cost of service to all of SDCEA’s consumers in the region, as well as affect the reliability of service provided in the region.

SDCEA has broad support in this effort. SDCEA is an active member of the Envision Forest Health Council, which is comprised of local leaders committed to creating better wildfire resiliency by implementing the Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The Envision plan is garnering the interest of and support from representatives in surrounding counties, which are also faced with many of the same vegetation management issues and wildfire threats. The plan, updated in February 2020, relies on the collaborative effort of many entities in the region. It uses computer mapping technology to identify areas in which treating 10-15% of the landscape will reduce by half the threat wildfire poses to the community’s most important resources. This means treatment projects are focused on protecting firefighters and people’s lives, homes, infrastructure like power lines and drinking water supply, wildlife and their critical habitats, and the recreation assets that support the local economy.

Envision’s goal is to treat up to 30,000 acres in Chaffee County by 2030. Thirty percent of these lands are located on private property. As a member of this local council, SDCEA is involved in the planning, funding, and execution of projects that will increase the past rate of treatments and provide better resiliency for many consumers in our service area.

Enactment of the rider allows SDCEA account holders to actively participate in the effort to prevent a catastrophic wildfire. While the rider and resulting mitigation program may be difficult for some of our account holders to support, we ultimately hope that through this commitment, the quality of life will be better protected for those living in our region in the future.

For questions and more information about the wildfire mitigation rider, please email info@myelectric.coop or call our office toll-free, 844-395-2412.

Consumer Questions & Answers

Yes, you are paying $6 more on your monthly bill.

The rider is an additional charge and is not a rate increase. Your electric rates have remained the same. Rates are charged based on how much electricity you use each month. SDCEA has not had a rate increase since 2017.

The rate rider charge is a standalone charge that goes only to, and is earmarked for, wildfire mitigation through augmented vegetation management efforts. The rider will be $6 per month in 2021, with an annual increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10, which will remain in effect until the board determines that this wildfire mitigation rider is no longer necessary.

The SDCEA Board of Directors opted to approve an incremental increase each year up to $10 max to lessen the immediate impact of the rider on consumers. The rate rider, as well as the rest of the rates on our rate schedule, are posted online at myelectric.coop. The information can be accessed through your account once signed in on Smarthub, under “My Documents”.

The wildfire threat in our region is clear, and we must take action to help prevent one here as soon as possible. SDCEA in recent years has budgeted and spent $540,000 annually from its general fund for vegetation management. At that funding level, it could take up to 20 years to effectively clear our lines. SDCEA cannot wait that length of time to work through our system to address what is an immediate threat. The rate rider was adopted to fund an accelerated response to this issue. SDCEA will continue to budget annual funding for vegetation management and will add those funds to the proceeds from the Wildfire Mitigation Rider toward clearing lines throughout SDCEA’s system.

Wildfire mitigation costs per mile of line are significantly higher than it would be in many other areas of the country. This is due, again, to the remote locations of many of our lines, the amount of vegetation in a specific area, and the terrain on which the line is located. Specialized equipment is needed to clear the vegetation under SDCEA’s lines. A significant amount of on-the-ground labor is needed to clear areas that cannot be accessed and processed by cutting equipment, also adding to the cost of clearing lines in our service territory. SDCEA is not hiring additional employees to complete this work.  Contracted crews with very specific training and equipment for line clearance will complete this work. Wildfire Mitigation Rate Rider funds are earmarked ONLY for wildfire mitigation efforts.

Initial mitigation work in 2021 will include a drone survey of SDCEA’s entire overhead system. From the drone survey, areas of greatest concern will be identified, specifically areas that have trees growing in the line currently. Mitigation crews will be dispatched to those identified areas first to remove the immediate threat of wildfire ignition. After the drone survey is complete, a schedule of areas planned for general wildfire mitigation will be assessed, developed and work plans will be developed for future years.

The board approved a $6 per month rate rider for 2021, with an incremental increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10 (2025), which will remain in effect until the board determines that the wildfire mitigation rider is no longer necessary.  The fee will ‘sunset’ or be removed from SDCEA bills at that time. Once lines in the service territory have been cleared, SDCEA will then be able fund maintenance of vegetation management on lines through its annual budget. Because the progress and scope of the plan is dependent on a number of variable factors, the sunset date cannot be determined at this time.

Taxes fund the public services of the governmental entities which assess the tax. SDCEA is a private company and is not funded by taxes.

SDCEA does not currently have a rate increase planned. We do continually evaluate our rates and look at whether those rates cover our wholesale power costs, costs of materials, equipment, personnel, and more. If we need to adjust our rates, that will be a separate action and consideration apart from this program.

Wildfire mitigation is something in which everyone who has an account on our system has a stake. If a catastrophic wildfire burns in our region, the environment in which you like to hike, hunt, raft, kayak, or simply enjoy from a distance, could be forever changed. The impacts of a wildfire are far-reaching and threaten human life, wildlife, air quality, our ecosystem, and our economy. You may also lose power for days, weeks, or even months during a wildfire, even if your property does not burn, as transmission lines are de-energized or damaged by the blaze.  

Even if your home is not located “in the trees,” you may still be at risk for a wildfire. Envision Chaffee County’s wildfire mitigation plan indicates areas where there are no trees that are of great concern for a fast-moving wildfire due to low moisture content vegetation.

The Envision plan is garnering the interest of and support from representatives in surrounding counties, which are also faced with many of the same vegetation management issues and wildfire threats that are found in Chaffee County. We believe this program is applicable throughout our service territory. We look forward to partnering with land managers in Fremont, Lake, Custer, and Saguache counties on a similar approach to help preserve life and the beauty of this region. Our mitigation efforts will take place throughout our service territory, not in Chaffee County alone. 

The Decker and Hayden Creek fires burned in several local counties recently. Three of the five largest wildfires in Colorado history have burned or are burning in 2020. The wildfire threat in our region is clear, and we must take action to help prevent one here as soon as possible, even though this is a difficult time to do so. We cannot wait to take action. 

The rider goes into effect in January 2021. Consumers will first see the amount due in February when you receive your January bill.  

We felt it is important to let our consumers know about the rate rider as soon as it was approved so that everyone on our system can be informed about and prepare for the extra charge. 

SDCEA first posted rider information on our website in early November 2020, shortly after the rate rider was approved by our board of directors. Information about the rate rider was published in the December issue of Colorado Country Life because print deadlines are about a month ahead of publication.

Overhead lines are generally the best way to deliver power cost-effectively and efficiently throughout our territory. Some of SDCEA’s terrain is so rugged, lines can simply not be buried in all locations.  

It is also far less expensive for a consumer to pay for an overhead line versus the costs of burying a line, particularly in our rocky terrain, so they often choose that option. If you have purchased a property with overhead lines, it is likely the original owner of that property opted for overhead service. 

Regardless of whether a line is above or below ground, SDCEA needs to be able to access that line. Easements and rights of way need to be cleared whether above or below ground for that purpose. Burying a line may still result in the loss of trees, as the ground must be plowed to dig a trench and bury the line. As more consumers connect to the SDCEA system, we periodically upgrade our lines to meet the growing load and the cost to replace the overhead line is much less than having to bury a new line which requires heavy equipment such as bulldozers. 

It would cost millions of dollars to bury, by the request of consumers, the overhead lines that can be buried. Those costs would need to be passed on to all consumers, in the form of much higher rates.  

You may explore the cost of burying a line on your property. Burying line at a property typically costs several thousand dollars. We cannot give you an actual estimate before a staking technician draws a plan for your site. If you are interested in that option, you will need to fill out the New Construction/Upgrade Service form and agree to pay a $275 non-refundable engineering fee.

SDCEA has a right to remove vegetation within our easements and rights of ways, and our company is committed to doing that. Generally, that is 20 feet on either side of a pole. Easements and rights-of-way vary with regards to dimensions and what is allowed to occur within them. 

If you would like to do some research on your particular property, take a look at your property plat or your title policy. That should show the details of utility easements on your property. 

Buena Vista is an incorporated municipality, where other ordinances and requirements of our franchise agreement with the town apply. Municipalities define rights of way (such as streets, alleys, roads, and parks) for public access to public utilities, so different criteria are used in evaluating how to clear our easements and rights of way in the town of Buena Vista.

Power generation offsets the energy you use, and any excess generation will be banked for you to use at a later time. The rate rider, like the Service Availability charge, is not calculated on the amount of energy you use. It is a charge necessary to protect the infrastructure needed to provide you power. It is separate from the actual cost of power to your home or business.

In the two years prior to the rate rider, SDCEA budgeted $500,000 annually for vegetation management. Because the cooperative must accelerate our response to wildfire mitigation, we have an exceptional and urgent situation that cannot be covered in a typical budget. At current levels, it would take nearly 20 years to clear our lines of vegetation. We will continue to spend the $500,000 per year we have the last couple of years in addition to the funds collected through the rate rider.  

The Decker and Hayden Creek fires burned recently in Chaffee, Fremont, and Saguache counties. Two of the three largest wildfires in Colorado history are burning or have burned in 2020. We do not have the luxury of time to budget this program out over 20 years. The threat is immediate. 

SDCEA has had a longstanding vegetation management program. Doing what we’ve always done will not resolve the immediate threat of wildfire quickly enough. Current circumstances warrant an accelerated response to clear our lines (local wildfires in recent years, and two of the three largest wildfires in the state are burning or have burned in 2020). A wildfire in our region could threaten lives, devastate the local environment, and negatively impact our economy. SDCEA is now able to partner with many individuals, groups, and organizations through the Envision Forest Health Plan, which was adopted in early 2020. Working together, we can make a much greater impact on decreasing the overall threat of wildfire in our region. 

Historically, we have not been as aggressive in clearing our right-of-ways so as to not offend consumers. We may have just trimmed trees back when we could have been removing the trees. This approach, however, just pushes the problem down the road, since the tree grows back. Now we are clearing trees instead of just trimming them back. Once removed, future maintenance costs will be reduced, which explains why we expect that we will be able to work within our normal budget numbers in the future for maintenance.

SDCEA, in working with our contractor Integrity Tree Services, will schedule notifications for consumers via a letter in advance, Facebook, Twitter, and website postsPlease make sure your mailing and phone number contact information is updated at our office so we may contact you. 

Our contractor will also be knocking on doors in advance of work done in project areas to let consumers know work will be done on their property.

Wildfire mitigation will be a process. We currently are using our best estimates of the scope of work to be done on our system. Our first action, planned for 2021, is to get drone scans of our entire electric system. We will use that information to develop a plan of action, including the identification of priority areas for wildfire mitigation. You can expect to be updated in Colorado Country Life and via other means, such as Facebook and our website as to our progress on this project.

Our top priority is the protection of human life. To the question of liabilitySDCEA could be held liable in the case of such a wildfire – potentially responsible for the loss of human life and property. While this would impact SDCEA’s financial condition, it would also likely also impact the reliability and costs of service to all of SDCEA’s consumers in the region. 

Many of our members have been requested to remove vegetation on their property by their homeowner’s insurance company to mitigate the threat of wildfire damages. SDCEA is also working with our insurance carrier to mitigate the threat of wildfire damages.

A crew from SDCEA’s vegetation management contractor Integrity Tree Services will be in the Cotopaxi and Howard areas beginning in February 2021 to resume work on clearing rights-of-way of vegetation for wildfire mitigation in the area.

System-wide tree trimming of vegetation in lines that are posing an immediate threat is something that has been and will be, ongoing.

Report a Tree Problem

Is there a tree on your property growing into a power line; a dead or dying tree near a power line; a tree that has fallen into electrical equipment, but is not yet causing an outage; or a climbable tree near power lines that may present a future hazard? Report it here so our crews can investigate the situation.

(If you are experiencing a power outage, please visit our Outage Center.)