OPALCO logging for wildfire prevention

Maintaining areas around power lines not only prevents outages, but also keeps electrical crews safe and keeps wildfires at bay. Orcas Power and Light Cooperative has begun what they are calling maintaining their right-of-way maintenance project for those very reasons.

“After all the fires in California, utilities are being required to do a much more thorough job of assessing wildfire dangers,” OPALCO board member Mark Madsen said. “What the cooperative is trying to mitigate,” he explained, “is a tree or tree limb coming down on a powerline during the summer, maintaining our rights of way is a crucial part of that. We really stepped it up, probably for the foreseeable future.”

Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric has been blamed for approximately 30 wildfires in California since 2017, wiping out more than 23,000 homes and businesses and killing more than 100 people, and have had to pay billions to the victims. The result has impacted power companies across the nation.

Should a similar wildfire occur locally, it would be catastrophic for the islands. Clearing has already begun on Roche Harbor Road and Pear Point on San Juan and has appeared drastic to some, shocking some islanders and property owners.

“It looks like a huge change, but it really isn’t,” Madsen said, adding that he hopes islanders will understand and appreciate going forward.

Former construction worker Sean Willson disagrees, “I like electricity too, but this just seems excessive and unnecessary,” he said, noting that some of the trees cut are hundreds of years old.

Wilson is no stranger to forest issues. He worked for the forestry department in Washington State during the 90s in a job focused in part on prescribed burns and wildfires. Wilson owns shoreline in the Pear Point area and has been surprised at the vacant swaths left behind.

“I measured from where they were working to an eagle’s nest and it was exactly a hundred feet,” Wilson said, noting that he has spotted the eagle pair in the area, but he has yet to see them in the nest since the nearby trees were cut.

“It doesn’t make sense to me because by logging the big trees that have protected the smaller scraggly trees, you are actually making it more dangerous and more likely for a tree to fall on the wires,” Wilson said. As a result, he added, this winter, due to the logging, the islands may see more power outages, not less.

“We are not California,” he added. “We don’t have Santa Ana winds in the summer like they do. Our wind happens in winter when the ground is wet, and the stronger trees they are cutting are more likely to withstand them.”

Wilson also voiced concern about trees on bluffs that have been cut, saying that the bluffs are now more susceptible to mudslides during the winter.

Eighty-seven percent of OPALCO’s lines are now underground, which is one of the reasons the county has had fewer outages. The lines remaining above ground, according to Krista Bouchey, OPALCO’s Assistant Communication Coordinator, are higher voltage transmission lines that will likely never be buried. “Transmission line burials would be upwards of five million a mile. The logistics are challenging including bigger easements from property owners and specific standards of burying high voltage lines, including burying them in concrete,” she said. “We would still need to clear the area for access to these lines even if we did bury them – which OPALCO has no plans to do. Also, burying transmission lines limits crew access, can delay outage restoration and make repairs more difficult.”

OPALCO is also asking that property owners be mindful of landscaping around lines and transformer boxes, to ensure the safety of OPALCO crew and provide them easier access in the case of emergencies. Trees and structures should be at least 10 feet away from the front side of electrical devices, and three feet away from the remaining sides.

According to Bouchey, rights of way are built into property deeds and are 10 feet for underground distribution lines, of which there are 1077 miles in San Juan County, 25 feet for overhead distribution lines, 142 miles throughout the county, and 50 feet for transmission lines, 39 miles countywide. She also explained that timber from the easements goes back to the property owner, according to Madsen. They may sell it or donate it to the Joyce Sobel Family Resource Center, where it will go to families in need of firewood.

According to David Williams, the Executive Director of the San Juan County Community Development, OPALCO as a utility company is exempt from county regulations surrounding logging, as would any governmental agency like the town, school, and water utility. Anyone tax-exempt doing improvements or maintenance to protect the infrastructure would be exempt. However, they still need to follow state laws and regulations.

On the state level, Loren Torgerson, Washington State Department of Natural Resources Wildland Fire Policy Advisor, said that utilities are encouraged to clear as much as possible to prevent wildfires, within the confines of forestry practice regulations and other permitting.

Utility companies are not exempt from any forestry regulations, explained Natalie Johnson, Communications Manager with Washington State DNR Forest Practices, Small Forest Landowners, and Landowner Assistance.

One exception is that utilities do not need to replant. Replanting would defeat the purpose. A permit is required after 5,000 board feet are logged, near shorelines and wetlands, and other sensitive areas.

“Forestry practices rules are complicated, and are often on a case-by-case basis,” she said. To help landowners the department has expanded the Small Forest Landowner Assistance program. “They are really knowledgeable and they are not regulators, so it really is just like you are asking for advice,” Johnson said.

Williams also encouraged landowners with any questions to come to the CDC. [The laws are] property specific, they include critical areas like shorelines, wetlands, and bluffs. Before cutting trees, give us a call and we will be happy to walk you through it. It is a very complex set of rules between us and the state,” Williams said.

According to Bouchey, property owners have generally complied with the maintenance.

“We have not had to take any legal action,” she said. Should an accident occur, Washington state law prevents property owners themselves from being liable in most cases, and OPALCO does not have any liability waiver on hand for property owners unwilling to allow OPALCO to maintain their rights of way. Wilson suggested that property owners check their deeds to make sure they know exactly where and how big OPALCO’s easement really is.

To learn more visit https://www.opalco.com/.

OPALCO will also be holding its annual meeting and electing two board members April 29 at 9 a.m. via Zoom. To register to attend, visit the OPALCO website.