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Electric Utilities Must Prepare for Wildfire Allegations with Risk Assessments

At the end of February 2024, wildfires began to burn across the Texas Panhandle. Two large fires did the most damage: The Smokehouse Creek fire, which burned over 1 million acres and was the largest wildfire in state history, and the Windy Deuce fire, which burned 145,000 acres.


As of Monday, March 11, the Smokehouse Creek fire was 89% contained, while the Windy Deuce fire was 94% contained. Though mostly contained, the damage from these fires is significant, with multiple lives lost, thousands of cattle destroyed, injured or displaced, and hundreds of structures and homes destroyed.


In the beginning of March, a lawsuit was filed alleging that Xcel Energy, the electric utility in the area, was responsible for a downed pole that may have sparked the Smokehouse Creek fire. The pole in question had previously been found to be degraded and in need of replacement, though it was still in use at the time that the fire began. An investigation by the Texas A&M Forest Service found that power lines also ignited the Windy Deuce fire. The forest service blames high winds causing power lines to swing and contact nearby tree limbs.  


A power line runs across a blue sky with bushes and trees underneath it.

Power lines are often routed through areas with lots of vegetation,

as seen here. Did an energized power line swinging into nearby vegetation spark the Windy Deuce fire in Texas?


Did a downed power line spark the Smokehouse Creek fire? Was poor vegetation management combined with the right atmospheric conditions the cause of the Windy Deuce fire?


How can an electric utility like Xcel Energy refute such claims when a lawsuit is filed against them? Or better yet, how can an electric utility minimize the risk of their lines sparking wildfires in the first place?


Wildfire Risk Assessments Determine Risk


A wildfire risk assessment performed by Prescient’s team of experts helps utilities determine their specific risk of power lines igniting wildfires in their service area. Our risk matrices use line-specific details, including protective relay schemes, distance from substation, right of way conditions, and more, to reliably predict if vegetation is likely to ignite when a fault occurs.


Once an assessment is completed, electric utilities have a detailed report outlining the specific areas of risk, by risk level. They can then determine the most cost efficient and effective ways to implement mitigation strategies that will lower the risk.


Informed Mitigation Strategies


The wildfire risk assessment report also includes line-specific updates that can be made to significantly reduce the risk of wildfires. Updates are often needed to protective relaying schemes and design practices to reduce wildfire risk. Power line construction, operation and maintenance practices can be updated as well.


Electric utilities can lean on these risk assessment reports when wildfires are allegedly ignited by their power lines. If they have implemented risk mitigation strategies, the likelihood of the power line sparking a wildfire is significantly reduced.


To learn more about how Prescient’s wildfire risk assessment can help your electric utility mitigate wildfire risk, or to schedule a free consultation, contact us.

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