When I read your May 8 article about trimming trees for power lines, I debated writing you. I am compelled to do so after your follow-up editorial ended with a suggestion that a common-sense solution needs to happen soon. I’ve worked in the utility industry since 1978. Back then a common- sense solution needed to happen soon.
Several attempts to develop a nationwide standard have failed. If one had succeeded it would not have been a common-sense solution, but it would have at least made all federal agencies march to the same beat. That would’ve been an improvement. There is simply little consistency among: 1) the regulatory agencies, 2) the districts of an agency, or 3) the personnel within a district of an agency. I witnessed two letters, from the same USFS district, less than two weeks apart, which were in complete odds with one another.
When it comes to clearing vegetation from power lines, regulatory common sense grows and shrinks from time to time. I believe this ebb and flow is the main reason that prior attempts to establish a national standard have failed. Utilities that were, at the time, seeing some common sense did not what to risk a nationwide standard ending up with a step backwards. Another major reason was a fear of the resulting paperwork. I’ve worked with some from the USFS that would rather see $5 spent on paperwork, that very few would ever read, than to see $1 spent clearing vegetation to prevent a fire. I often thought that the continued demand for paperwork was caused by the fear of ever having to make a real decision.
A common-sense solution will always be opposed by those who prefer that no one be allowed to live in or near the forest. Or at best want all power lines undergrounded, regardless of the cost. Of course, those that want the lines undergrounded also want anybody but themselves to pay for it.
Of all the agencies I have worked with the USFS is the most frustrating. Although the BLM is not exactly awash with common sense, it has some and it is not nearly as belligerent. I witnessed a USFS employee brag about preventing power from being delivered to more than 20 existing homes, because “those homes should not be there.” The USFS reactions to tree trimming and other issues caused me to long ago conclude that the USFS should adopt the moto “we want you mere citizens out of our forests.”
At one of the first meetings of the Trinity County Collaborative group there was talk about the need for fuel breaks. I had hoped that vegetation near TPUD power lines would be cut down to create those fuel breaks. I even suggested the TPUD would fund most of the work, if the Collaborative group could get approval. That idea was soon rejected in favor of the more politically correct “shaded fuel breaks.” Now, many years later, I do not think the Collaborative group has yet to get the right paperwork needed to create even one “shaded fuel break.”
It is easy for an agency to say “all you have to do is complete the paperwork,” even though they know that few will ever read it. The agency always seems to forget to acknowledge that the paperwork is rarely enough and has to be modified over and over again. The USFS once showed me a three-inch document that PG&E created to clear a single power line. They said the TPUD should do the same for each of its lines. They turned completely deaf when I explained that the cost of such paperwork, plus a return to its stockholders, is passed on to PG&E’s ratepayers. Why should PG&E object to preparing a voluminous document that maybe three people will ever read, if it profits its shareholders at the expense of ratepayers? Fortunately, the following year the USFS personnel changed as did the desire for that much-needless paperwork.
I cannot close without mentioning another USFS insanity. Some within the USFS are very anal when it comes to a “merchantable tree,” one that is big enough to be lumbered. Such a tree needs to be at more than 45 degree lean, over the power line, with half its roots exposed before some at the USFS will approve of it being cut down. But only on the condition that we do not sell nor give it to the mill. Instead they want it chipped and scattered or burned depending on which USFS person you are working with.
One could likely write a book after interviewing retired utility personnel trying to trim vegetation from power lines. Rarely is the cost of the trimming an impediment. Often it is only a forest fire that introduces some short-lived common sense.
One final thought about power line-related wildfires. I have never heard of one being started by a power line all by itself. Something else is needed to cause the power line to create sparks, such as an act of nature causing the lines to slap together, a tree or branch to fall on the line or a pole to fall down; a vehicle hitting a pole; some idiot shooting the insulators for target practice; or several other less frequently occurring events. While one of the rarer events could be failure of the utility’s equipment, I’ve never heard of a case where that resulted in a forest fire.