Drought conditions in parts of Texas since the early 2000s have led to significant wildfires. In 2011 alone, more than 3 million acres burned.
The risk is always present for a combination of high winds, dry grass, trees and other vegetation – along with an errant spark or lightning strike – can spawn blazes that travel up to 70 miles an hour. Those fires in turn can lead to the destruction of hundreds of utility poles in the Xcel Energy service territory.
In 2014, Transmission and Vegetation Management conducted a pilot project aimed at increasing the fire resistance of wooden utility poles. The groups created a risk map and identified nearly 6,500 poles in high-risk fire zones, said Daniel Fleischman, principal engineer in Transmission System Performance.
In November that year, a coating agent called Fire-Guard was applied to stretches of two transmission lines in Texas. About 650 wooden H-frame poles were treated on the two lines.
Last New Year’s Day and in the ensuing days, the pilot project was tested as fire burned and exposed one of the lines, providing a good test of the effort, he said. Another fire followed in March, affecting a different portion of the same line.
In total, the March fire stomped through the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma and Kansas for more than three weeks. Seven people died, more than 2 million acres burned and 1,500 head of cattle perished.
The Perryton Fire, one of the largest of the cluster of March wildfires, burned nearly 500 square miles – approximately 320,000 acres – in four counties in the northeast part of the Panhandle. It became the third largest wildfire in Texas A&M Forest Service’s history.
An economist at the university estimated it could take up to $6 million dollars to recover from the acreage burned in Texas, plus another $4 million to replace destroyed fencing alone.
In the company’s service territory, out of 908 untreated poles exposed to the fires, 83 poles were destroyed. However, on the treated section of line, only one pole was lost out of 143 hit by fire.
“We usually lose about 10 percent of our poles in a fire, so this was a proof of concept that the treatment worked,” Fleischman said. “Usually we don’t get a test to show up that quickly, so our timing was pretty good.”
Line crews were appreciative of the results for obvious reasons, he said. Safe and standing utility poles mean less time spent dealing with wind-born ash and the dangers of wildfires while replacing damaged poles.
The company is now working on application standards for various treatment options, including Fire-Guard, said Jeff Goodson, manager of Ancillary Programs with Vegetation Management. It also is updating its wildfire-risk maps.
Although some transmission lines in high-fire-risk areas of Colorado have received treatment, Minnesota and more of Colorado and Texas are now being considered for further fire-resistant pole treatments.
“The product can be sprayed or brushed on poles – with one or two coats usually enough to create the recommended thickness,” Goodson said. “It dries to a brown finish, lasts years and can protect poles through more than one fire.”
After each burn, treated poles are inspected and the latex-based material spot-applied as needed for extra or replacement protection. The product also is “breathable,” so it will not capture moisture and promote decay of wooden poles, he added.
Clearing vegetation near poles is often a first line of defense against wildfires. But in some areas of Texas and Colorado, dense vegetation and forest around facilities are not the issue. Dry grass, bushes and trees anywhere can be material to fuel a fire that rages across many acres of open range land.
“This effort will help limit our risk of losing structures to wildfire and help limit our crews’ exposure safety-wise,” Fleischman said. “And it ultimately will help the company save money by avoiding damage to its infrastructure.”
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