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Smothering Sparks

Enhanced standards of care for companies operating in fire-prone terrain.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2010

against all parties that can be shown to be negligent in any way in the event of traumatic loss. Energy suppliers and their contractors frequently are named as co-defendants.

All responsible and vigilant utility industry participants are aware of these evolving conditions. And all responsible companies have invested heavily in training, equipment, and policies that are intended to prevent losses to people and property, including their own. So what more can be done?

Fire-Mitigation Standards

The sources of fire hazard can be grouped in order to begin planning for mitigation. They are:

• Vegetation contact with conductors or lines;

• Exploding hardware, such as transformers or capacitors;

• Floating or wind-blown debris;

• Conductor-to-conductor contact;

• Wooden support poles blown down by high wind;

• Dust or dirt on insulators;

• Foreign object contact with conductors or support structures;

• Construction or maintenance of infrastructure;

• Re-energizing lines after failure or during construction;

• Road and ROW grading;

• Welding operations;

• Lightning;

• Personnel behavior such as smoking on-site; and

• All other spark or heat-creating activity.

Of course, the four basic ingredients needed to cause an ignition, and which should be accounted for in the creation of a good risk-mitigation policy, include: 1) fuel availability, such as grass, brush, trees, and wooden poles; 2) heat, such as ambient temperatures or heat created by work output; 3) oxygen, as found in ambient air; and 4) ignition source, such as sparks, spontaneous combustion, air-borne embers, vehicle exhaust, etc.

Fire-mitigation and suppression policies, tools, and technologies are all built around the concept of denying one or more of the four basic ingredients. To extinguish a fire, one of those four ingredients must be eliminated. Fires start from many sources and under many conditions, but the part that power lines, pipelines, and transportation and communication infrastructure play are all very well documented.

New Standards of Care

In 2009, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) may have redefined the standard of care for wildfires for the utility industry by starting a pilot program for on-site wildfire protection.

SDG&E implemented a program to determine whether innovative actions could be taken that would reduce the risk of runaway wildfires and to provide on-site emergency medical services to crew personnel, while performing project work in the field (see North County Times , Sept. 23, 2009). As many as eight private fire engines and crews along with a strike team leader and an agency representative were deployed daily under the direction of SDG&E fire coordinators. SDG&E’s fire coordinators worked with their district managers as well as local fire officials to determine the scope and operational guidelines of the program. Each morning an incident action plan—consistent with the national-standard incident command system—was published and distributed to SDG&E, the engine companies, and local fire authorities to outline the assignments for the day. Engine crews participated in a morning safety briefing alongside assigned utility crew and monitored vicinity weather, which was reported daily to the SDG&E meteorologist. Engine crews reacted to ignitions, medical emergencies and hazardous materials as needed by the utility