SDCEA Prioritizes Vegetation Management
Everyone with electric service on SDCEA’s lines has a stake in protecting our region from the threat of a catastrophic wildfire. The threat of wildfire is high regionally due to poor forest health conditions, insect infestation, drought, areas of dense vegetation, and our arid climate. A wildfire threatens human life, wildlife, air quality, water quality, the ecosystem, property values, and the economy. Even if your home is not located “in the trees,” you may lose power during a wildfire, as transmission lines are de-energized or damaged by the blaze. The environment in which you like to boat, hike, hunt, or simply enjoy from a distance, could be devastated by a nearby wildfire. Nationwide, several communities have been leveled by advancing wildfires in 2020.
Throughout the communities that SDCEA serves, many residents are doing their part to lower the threat of a wildfire by observing fire restrictions, supporting forest health initiatives, and clearing a defensible space around their homes. Regional emergency managers, land managers, government agencies, and businesses are also working to lower the threat of a destructive wildfire. SDCEA shares these concerns and is an active member of Envision Chaffee County’s community wildfire protection plan.
Enacted with the support of emergency management services, fire districts, the Chaffee County commissioners, the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, and many other interested area parties, 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. The plan includes up to 30,000 acres of land identified in Chaffee County to be mitigated by 2030. Envision’s position is that by treating 5% to 10% of the county’s landscape, the risk of severe wildfires will be reduced by 50% and up to 70%.
SDCEA supports the mitigation plan outlined in the Envision plan. We believe that by managing vegetation along our rights-of-way (ROWs) throughout the five counties we serve, clearing a relatively small percentage of the trees in this region, we will potentially save many more.
Statistically, most wildfires are caused by lightning, although some are certainly caused by people. Another potential cause of a wildfire is electric lines or equipment sparking into nearby vegetation. Here at SDCEA, we have committed to do our part to help prevent a wildfire from starting from a spark from our lines. Clearing vegetation around high-risk power lines has always been a top priority for SDCEA and 35 miles of line were cleared this year. That figure includes ROWs along the rebuild of the main feeder line from SDCEA’s Buena Vista Substation to the Twin Lakes Substation, a project which increases SDCEA’s service reliability. While the need for continued clearing remains, progress is limited each year by funds available in SDCEA’s budget. About 756 miles of line on our system remain in need of vegetation management at the end of 2020.
The reality for all of us is that wildfires are growing in size and in intensity around this region, state, and throughout the West. Two of the three largest wildfires in Colorado history have burned in 2020. The Hayden Creek and Decker fires burned in Fremont, Chaffee, and Saguache counties in recent years. SDCEA recognizes the urgency to address this issue to prevent future wildfires and is working on ways to rapidly respond to the risk of our electric system sparking such a fire.
Safety and reliability
Many outages on Sangre de Cristo Electric Association’s electric system are caused by trees in contact with our lines. Clearing our ROWs decreases the number of outages we have on our system. And, when an outage occurs, a cleared line allows better and safer access for our crews to respond to an outage and restore power quickly. Recently, a late summer snowstorm hit the area. The weight of the snow from the storm snapped trees and broke branches, which then fell on lines and other electrical equipment. The result was outages to 3,000 homes for hours during the storm. A power outage can be more than an inconvenience to those who depend on electricity to power medical equipment or need internet service to conduct business.
All utilities are capital intensive and outages caused by storms can be costly repairs. Not only does SDCEA utilize our own resources during an outage, we may need to bring in an outside contractor to help restore power to all of our consumers. This equates to spending more dollars on repair that could be better spent improving SDCEA’s electrical system by rebuilding line and clearing vegetation. In working in the conditions such as those presented by the last storm, a whole host of hazardous situations occur, which could ultimately cause serious injury to our crews as well as to our consumers or those passing through our beautiful area.
For more information on vegetation management and safety, visit our website. Click on the Safety tab.
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 innovative plan, updated in February 2020, uses computer mapping technology to identify where to treat 5% to 10% of the landscape to reduce by 50% and up to 70%, the threat wildfire poses to the community’s most important resources. This means treatment projects are focused on protecting human 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 the 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 rate of treatments and provide better resiliency for many customers in our service area.
For more information on Envision Chaffee County’s wildfire protection plan, visit the Envision Chaffee County website.