Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wildfire prompts concerns about power lines

Burned area in the Dolores River Valley after a recent wildfire.
Suzanne Motsinger
Burned area in the Dolores River Valley after a recent wildfire.

When Suzanne Motsinger spotted smoke across from her home in the Dolores River Valley, she wasn’t terribly worried. It was, after all, early April – April 5, to be exact – and there was still snow on the ground under the trees. The smoke wasn’t extensive.

“I saw one thin column going straight up across the river and down the valley,” she told KSJD.

But she called 911 immediately.

It was just as well that she did. The wind-whipped blaze ultimately charred more than a hundred acres, prompted evacuations of some homes, and closed Highway 145 at Road 37 for about four hours that day.

Now, because it appears that the event may have been sparked by a tree crashing onto a power line, Empire Electric is seeking a federal grant to help pay the costs of burying 26 miles of line along the river corridor.

Motsinger is convinced that it was indeed a tree that caused the fire. She said it was the third such fire in six or seven years. “I’ve lived here and have seen it so many times, and our power went out. One plus one equals two.”

Empire Electric General Manager Josh Dellinger told KSJD it isn’t 100 percent certain that a tree falling on the line started the fire, but it’s possible.

“We’re not expert at arson investigations or anything like that,” he said. “There were trees in our line there, that’s what we found. It was possible. Lots of trees were down out there. Some trees that came down were outside of our right-of-way. We try to do a good job maintaining that and it was all clear, but there were some tall trees from outside the right-of-way that came down.”

Winds were high across the region that day, fanning numerous fires that broke out across the state and region. It wasn’t long before the one near Motsinger’s home was spreading.

Her home, which she’s owned for 22 years, sits near the confluence of the West Fork. The air there tends to swirl around, she said, which meant the flames did not follow a predictable path.

“The fire traveled in all four directions. It went up the canyon wall. It jumped the river and went to the highway. It spread all four directions in no time flat,” she said.

“Trees were falling all over the place during the storm,” she said.

Ultimately, crews from numerous agencies – Dolores Volunteer Fire & Rescue, West Fork Volunteer Fire & Rescue, the Cortez, Mancos, and Rico Fire Protection Districts, Lewis-Arriola Volunteer Fire Department, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service – were battling the fire.

Motsinger was evacuated, taking her dogs and a few belongings, and spent the night elsewhere. The rest of her subdivision was also evacuated, though she said at this time of year, many of the homes aren’t occupied. Another subdivision was put on pre-evacuation status. But no structures were lost, thanks to firefighters’ efforts, and no one was injured.

“They surrounded my home with hose. They did an incredible job. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

She also thanked Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin for using Starlink, a satellite-based service, to keep her and others informed of the situation.

“He was able to call me and ask me to relay information to my neighbors regarding the status of houses and evacuation.”

According to a social-media post by Montezuma County, 118 acres of private and Forest Service land were charred. Some power poles snapped, and power was out for the area until workers with Empire Electric were able to restore it the next day.

“It took us all day Saturday to get everything taken care of,” Dellinger said. “There were poles in bad shape. That was some high wind.”

The Monday after the fire, Dellinger came before the county commissioners at their workshop to ask them to support Empire’s request for a federal grant to put the power lines underground. The commissioners signed a letter of support at their meeting the next day.

Sharing costs

Dellinger told KSJD that the combination of wind, trees, and power lines is a major issue region-wide.

“There was a fire in New Mexico several years ago from a tree falling into a power line,” he said. “Across the West there have been fires from vegetation getting into power lines. This is an issue that is a much broader issue throughout the state and region.

“Not only us, but if other utilities get lines underground as well, it would remove potential ignition sources and help the system in case another ignition source lights a fire, like lightning or a campfire that gets out of control. Infrastructure will be damaged the way it is right now. When it’s underground it’s much more resilient.”

In addition, he said, when lines are underground and there is a fire, the power would not go out.

“People that depend on that service would be able to retain power. There are lots of benefits.”

He said while Empire is digging the trench, other entities that needed to bury cables or other infrastructure could “jump in” and do so at the same time, making the effort more cost-effective and efficient.

“We have done that before. We recently replaced underground lines on the mountain above Monticello with Emery Telecom. We shared costs.”

‘A needed project’

Of course it’s not yet certain whether Empire will receive the funding.

“We made it through a first hurdle for this grant,” said Dellinger. He explained that the first stage involves providing preliminary costs and benefits of the project to the U.S. Department of Energy. “Then DOE picks out from all the applications the ones they’re interested in. Now you fill out a full application.”

That’s where Empire is in the process.

“This is a good project and a needed project,” he said.

He said he didn’t have exact figures, but Empire is seeking about $10 million from the government. “We would contribute as well in a matching form, so it would be about $15 million total.”

A national problem 

The Dolores River Valley is far from the only place where concern has arisen about power lines.

“Utility-Caused Wildfires Are Becoming a National Problem,” reads the headline on an article in the New York Times published in March.

Likewise, a January press release from the Department of Energy said, “Climate-change-fueled extreme weather events are increasing the frequency and intensity of power outages across the U.S., harming communities and disrupting livelihoods.

“Undergrounding power lines is a proven way of improving the system reliability for both transmission and distribution grids. . .”

The Times article said major wildfires caused by utility equipment are occurring in numerous places “as forces turbocharged by climate change like extreme heat and drought wreak havoc on electric grids that were not built or upgraded to withstand them.”

Xcel Energy has admitted that its equipment most likely started February’s Smokehouse Creek Fire in the Texas Panhandle, and Hawaiian Electric said one of its power lines ignited the fire in Lahaina on the island of Maui that killed 101 people.

As the planet warms, experts predict more wildfires are likely, and utility networks of wires and transformers are a major concern. The Times said utility equipment has caused less than 10 percent of wildfires across the country, but that’s still a significant amount

Burying power lines is one way to reduce the risk of such conflagrations, but the cost can run as much as $3 million to $4 million per mile, according to the Times, and the projects can take years to implement.

A cheaper measure might be “fast-trip” technology, which shuts off parts of an electrical network as soon as trees or other objects damage lines. According to the Times, which was citing research done at the University of California, Berkeley, this costs $5,000 to $10,000 a mile and could cut the risk of utility-caused wildfires by nearly 72 percent.

But shutting power off is not popular.

On the Saturday in April when firefighters were still stamping out spot fires at the Dolores River confluence, Xcel Energy pre-emptively cut power to about 55,000 customers in several Front Range counties in Colorado because of the danger posted by high winds and falling trees.

The company was both praised and criticized for that decision in letters to the editor in the Denver Post.

“Will I now have to be concerned during the summer months that my electricity will be cut off when there is a high wind warning together with high fire danger?” asked one Boulder resident in a letter.

Motsinger told KSJD she believes it is well past time to bury the power lines in the Dolores River Valley.

“Residents up and down the Dolores River Valley are real concerned about the danger of fire on lines. This is a warning balloon.”

Motsinger said 20 years ago most neighbors in the valley told Empire they were willing to have trenches through their properties to bury the lines, but one neighbor said no, and the project didn’t happen.

“Four years ago, me and my brother and my adjacent neighbor said we want to bury the lines on our own property and Empire sent a letter back saying we would be charged $300,000 for our three acres.”

Now she hopes the federal grant will come through and the lines will finally be put underground.

“It just needs to happen.”

Gail Binkly is a career journalist who has worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette and Cortez Journal, and was the editor of the Four Corners Free Press, based in Cortez.