MTPR

How NorthWestern Energy Works To Mitigate Wildfire Risk

May 16, 2019

On Wednesday, investigators concluded that electric power lines caused the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The Camp Fire burned more than 150,000 acres and killed 85 people. The electric utility that owns the power lines has filed for bankruptcy as a result of lawsuits related to the fire.

What is Montana’s biggest utility doing to mitigate fire risk? Montana Public Radio’s Eric Whitney talks to NorthWestern Energy Spokesperson Jo Dee Black about that.

"Annually we do patrol all of the lines in that patrol is done mostly with a helicopter," Black says. "And that patrol is done in the late fall, early spring and is usually wrapped up by May because if there is work that needs to be done we want to get that done well before fire season. There is also a second patrol of what we call our bulk distribution lines, and that's done in June."

NorthWestern’s lines stretch over nearly 25,000 miles in total in Montana, the majority are overhead lines. Many of those miles are through corridors of trees, and a tree falling on a powerline can result in a fire.

In the last two years NorthWestern has increased spending on hazard tree removal in response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Last year it spent $3.3 million above its normal tree clearance line item.

Here's NorthWestern's Manager of Vegetation Management Scott Bernhardt from a video NorthWestern posted on YouTube.

"This started very slow, we were seeing just pockets of bug kill, and now it’s affecting approximately 9 million acres in Montana. Currently we believe we have 1,100-1,300 miles of line just affected by the mountain pine beetle," Bernhardt says.

That means, says NorthWestern Spokeswoman Jo Dee Black, that the company is more than doubling its spending on hazard tree removal.

"This year we anticipate the spending on that program is going to be $8.5 million," she says.

And NorthWestern’s video makes it sound like spending might need to increase due to a couple of other bugs called the spruce budworm and Douglas fir beetle.

"We’re just seeing large pockets of these infestations," Bernhardt says. "Complete mortality in some areas. There’s no telling how big it could get. It’s got the potential to be as big as the mountain pine beetle epidemic or larger, possibly."

NorthWestern Energy serves about 374,000 electric customers in Montana.