Since the late 1930s, nonprofit electric cooperatives have served the rural areas of our country. These cooperatives started when residents of underserved areas formed their own utilities to power the farms, small towns and communities dotting the map in rural America. By the 1950s, tens of thousands of miles of electric distribution and transmission lines had been installed across the most rugged terrain imaginable.
This was no different in Douglas County. Douglas Electric Cooperative serves 10,000 meters across 2,200 square miles in some of the most heavily forested and mountainous territory served by any utility. Historically across the West and in Douglas County, powerlines rarely caused fires, but when they did, those fires never escalated into the destructive type of wildfires we see today. Something has obviously changed.
There is little doubt that the West is hotter, dryer and has more dead fuel lying on our forest floors than ever before. In the last 100 years, we have declared war on almost all wildfires except the most remote and difficult to access. We have been very effective in neutralizing nature’s attempts to regulate the dead fuel in our forests. The forests that used to be light and patchy are now dense and dying. Disease and insect infestations spread easily through the overgrown timber. Drought and warmer temperatures weaken standing trees as they compete for the scarce resources needed to fight off the increasing threats. Our wildfire season is now more than 30 days longer than it was just a couple of decades ago and it’s still growing.
As a utility manager, I look at the many thousands of 150 foot or taller trees bordering our 30-foot-wide utility corridors and become a little disheartened about the potential for damage caused when these trees fall into the lines. The only way to lift my spirits, is to shake it off and start working the problem. Douglas Electric, like other Oregon cooperatives, is proactively working with state and local agencies in responding to the increasing wildfire threat.
We are implementing new Fire Mitigation Plans (FMP), increasing an already robust right-of-way trimming program, going underground with new power lines when practical, increasing crew levels and implementing new procedures.
At the same time, we have some major challenges ahead that utility plans can’t address. The fact is, even if we remove powerlines as an ignition source, our forests and adjacent properties are still very much at risk. One of Oregon’s largest fires, that caused more than $34 million in damage, was caused by a teen and fireworks. The problem is bigger than electric utilities. The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection estimates only 10 percent of its fires were caused by powerlines. Similarly, the National Park Service said, “Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans.”
Electrically caused fires are tracked in a separate category.
“Human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment uses and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson," according to the National Park Service.
Unfortunately, California’s most recent devastating fire was caused by electricity and now has linked powerlines and wildfire in the public’s mind. It would be a mistake if our efforts stopped there. There is a difference between fire and wildfire. While lots of things can be the ignition source for a fire, dry conditions coupled with an abundance of fuel and wind are responsible for the recent wildfires. Our risk is growing as more and more fuel continues to accumulate on the forest floors during hotter, drier summers.
We support the aspects of any legislation aimed at removing fuel and engaging quicker response times to wildfires in rural areas, including legislation that is likely going to be voted on later this month. Steps like prescribed burns outside of fire season, and mechanical thinning as part of an overall strategy for forest management needs to be implemented now.
If Oregon can prioritize this issue today, we can make a difference for the fire season coming in the summer — and as we have for decades, Douglas Electric Cooperative will continue its best efforts to prevent our lines from being a source of ignition in the first place.
(Keith Brooks is the general manager for Douglas Electric Cooperative. Douglas Electric Cooperative serves about 9,600 members over 2,200 sq. miles of north and west Douglas County and had been operating since 1939.)