December 21, 2021

Congressman Neguse tours Kruger Rock burn scar, talks grid modernization

Congressman Joe Neguse was in Estes Park on Monday (Dec. 20) to tour the Kruger Rock Fire (KRF) burn area and discusses funds that will soon be available for grid improvements thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed into law by President Biden on Nov. 15.

Around noon, the Congressman met up with Mayor Wendy Koenig, Trustee Cindy Younglund, Town Administrator Travis Machalek, Assistant Town Administrator Jason Damweber, Estes Valley Fire Protection District Chief David Wolf, and Power and Communications Line Superintendent Joe Lockhart.

The group traveled out to the 147 acre burn scar that the KRF left in the Little Valley area and hiked about a half mile out to see the healthy tree that snapped in half and landed on electric lines, causing the fire to ignite.

While the wind was the cause of the KRF, it didn’t happen the way you might think, as no power lines came down or even got close to touching the ground. When high winds snapped the roughly one foot in diameter pine tree, the top half landed on electric lines high above the ground.

The force of the tree landing on the lines made two lines touch, causing a power surge that sent massive amounts of electricity through the lines. The high voltage traveled six poles down the line before a grounding wire did its job and transferred the electricity down the pole and into the ground.

The area surrounding that particular pole was mostly dry grasses and dead pine needles that immediately caught fire and spread up the steep terrain from there.

“It actually got pinched about 800 feet up the line and all of the ground wires in between there and the pole where the fire started saw current coming down,” Lockhart said. “Maybe this one had less resistance so more current came this direction than the last six poles. We’ve had several engineers look at it, and they all say this functioned correctly.”

The pole, at the bottom of which the fire started, was less than 100 yards from a group of homes in the area. Thankfully, high winds pushed the blaze up towards Kruger Rock and not down the mountain towards the neighborhood.

According to Lockhart, any electric lines erected within the last 10 years in Estes Park have a 20 foot easement but anything built before that, including the lines that started the fire, only have a 10 foot easement.  The crossbeams that you see on the top of an average power line are about eight feet wide, meaning crews can only cut and trim trees that fall within one foot of either side of the crossbeams.

Based on where the lines are located, property owners can allow for more trimming to be done. In this case, the tree that did the damage was roughly 20 feet away from the lines and had been recently trimmed to get rid of branches that were stretching too close to the lines.

The most effective tool the town has to prevent these kinds of fires from starting is the use of insulated power lines that can withstand nearly any damage, short of being completely severed, and still operate safely.

The town has roughly 350 miles of power lines, 100 of which is already insulated and Power and Communications crews continue to upgrade lines each year through capital improvement projects.

“[Insulated line] costs about three times as much, and that is why a lot of electric companies don’t use it. We’re talking 40 cents a foot compared to sometimes nine cents a foot,” said Lockhart. “It all depends on what size the wire is and that kind of stuff.”

Beginning around 10 years ago, Estes Park only puts up insulated line when repairs or replacements are needed.

“The fastest and cheapest thing would be to remove as many trees as possible from the power lines, but the more realistic thing is to install [insulated line],” Lockhart said. “We could underground this power line for about $100 a foot, or we could build this out at $18 a foot using this insulated line, getting more bang for your buck.”

Since debris falling on the insulated lines rarely result in power outages or fires, it takes patrolling by the Power and Communication staff to find any limbs or trees that could possibly be resting on the lines.

Lockhart said crews had removed roughly 20 trees from insulated lines in a span of three days; trees they never would have known were sitting on the lines without actually going out and patrolling.

As to where the town can find the funding to speed the replacing of older lines with insulated ones, Congressman Neguse said there should be funds available, if not now, very soon.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill that we passed a few weeks ago included a big chuck of money for grid modernization, and it would partly go to programs like this. I think they’ll be some pretty good grant opportunities from the Department of Energy,” said Congressman Neguse. “And then there is a whole lot of money coming to the Forest Service for wildfire mitigation projects and so the questions will just be making sure our forests benefit from these programs.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invests more than $65 billion in clean energy transmission and grid modernization — the largest investment in American history. Its goal is to upgrade power infrastructure by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to help the expansion of renewable and clean energy, while also lowering costs.

“Coloradans are no stranger to extreme weather, whether the devastating wildfires we experienced last year, intense flooding, or heavy winter storms,” said Congressman Neguse. “The historic investment in our nation’s power grid through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is long overdue. The plan will make our power grid more resilient to extreme weather events and ensure Northern Colorado families are protected from power outages in the wake of climate-related weather incidents.”

The law also includes over $5 billion for wildfire management and a pay raise for federal wildland firefighters. In addition, the plan will provide $300 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program which is currently funding the aerial mulching operation in the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars.

“As communities in Estes Park and throughout Larimer County recover from the record breaking Cameron Peak and East Troublesome wildfires, federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support recovery on our lands and watersheds is absolutely critical,” Congressman Neguse said. “The over $5 billion for wildfire management provided in this bill is a necessary down-payment that will help reduce the threat of future wildfires and give a long overdue pay raise to our federal wildland firefighters.”

The bill was designed to the funds for these projects would go directly to the towns and municipalities that they are awarded, since, in most areas, those entities are in charge of the fire departments. In Colorado and Estes Park, there are Fire Protection Districts that are not directly associated with the town.

In some areas, this could cause a delay in getting the money from the federal government  to the towns, and then on to the Fire Protection Districts to spend, but Estes Park already has a plan in place where multiple agencies will be working together to get the funds where they are needed most.

“We’re working really closely and in unison on the development of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) on having those priorities so that, if those grant dollars go to the town, then we’re working together to execute the same projects,” said Chief Wolf. “Even if the money is not coming directly to us, we’re working in alignment with our partners to make sure those projects happen.”

The CWPP team is made up of a variety of people across many agencies including Chief Wolf, Machalek, and representatives from Rocky Mountain National Park, the Forest Service, Larimer County, the Watershed Coalition, and others.

“We’re fortunate because [that level of communication] doesn’t happen everywhere,” Mayor Koenig said.

By:  Tim Mosier
Source: Estes Park Trail Gazette