Alberta weather conditions from spring to fall can often be very dry, which contributes to prime fire conditions. The recent wildfires in northern Alberta and the surrounding area emphasize just how important it is for companies that operate in forested
or grassy areas to have effective wildfire prevention practices in place.
And what does this look like for FortisAlberta?
The safety of our employees and the public around powerlines is our top priority and with many of our poles and wires located in areas deemed high-risk for wildfires, wildfire prevention is an important part of our safety program.
Coinciding with the beginning of wildfire season in April, fire bans within parts of our service territory trigger operational response. During times of low fire risk, our equipment is designed to re-energize after a momentary fault, resulting in a momentary ‘blip’ in the power. In high-risk wildfire scenarios, this equipment is disabled and must be manually patrolled and reclosed by a Power Line Technician to ensure no further fire hazard is created. While this may cause a lengthier outage, such measures are important for the protection of life and property.
Visual line patrols
Each year, field employees, by vehicle and on foot, patrol designated areas to look at poles, lines and equipment throughout our service territory to visually identify any potential deficiencies in our system. These patrols provide information in the form of data, statistics, observations, assessments and recommendations of repairs needed on the electricity distribution system to protect employees and the public, to improve reliability, and prevent equipment failures that could pose a fire risk.
Insulators located on the tops of poles or crossarms can deteriorate through buildup of dust, silt and road salt, creating a fire hazard on the pole itself if the wire conductor contacts the wood. Washing takes place in the spring and summer to remove this ‘contamination’ that builds up over the winter months.
Porcelain switch replacement
We are replacing all porcelain switches on our system, a now outdated material for this equipment, as failed porcelain switches may create safety hazards such as falling debris, fault conditions, arc flash, damaged equipment, pole fire or wildfire. In addition to causing a potential hazard for employees and the public, porcelain switch failures reduce the reliability of the distribution system.
The program focuses on replacing switches in high-risk areas including:
• areas that have specific fire risk or environmental considerations;
• locations with lower risk tolerance such as schools, playgrounds, etc.;
• switches that are more commonly operated; and
• switches that have the most impact on reliability.
Our Wildfire Management Plan follows rules and guidelines that have been set out by the minister of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. The plan is designed to minimize the potential occurrence and severity of wildfires caused by downed or damaged power lines in Alberta’s Forest Protection Area.
As part of this plan, we are committed to keeping trees and branches from contacting overhead conductors, wires or other equipment installed on poles. We conduct system-wide vegetation inventories once every three years to support long-range management plans. The intent is to establish a consistent, targeted vegetation control cycle that manages problem vegetation, establishes compatible vegetation on right-of-ways and identifies trees that pose a risk.
Power Line Wildfire Prevention Task Group
The industry group has been working for more than four years to reduce power-line-caused fires and consists of members from other utilities in the province and the Government of Alberta. The focus of this industry and government partnership is to prevent utility-caused wildfire ignitions; improve the resilience of the power line industry by proactively reducing community risk; and understand the changing environmental factors that lead to catastrophic wildfire events.
Wildfire suppression training and preparedness
All of our field employees are equipped and prepared to provide first response to wildfires - they carry water packs, fire brooms and axes during fire season and their work plans address fire safety and risk mitigation.
If they find themselves in a wildfire situation, they are trained to take the following steps:
1. Ensure safety of themselves and others
2. Call the proper agency for assistance
3. Determine if they can safely “action” the fire with equipment they have on hand
How can we all support the prevention of wildfires?
We can all play a role in helping to prevent wildfires. It’s important to be aware of current fire bans, restrictions and advisories in your area by visiting the Alberta Fire Bans website and abiding by the posted alerts.
In areas and at times when campfires are permitted, be sure to choose a location that is sheltered from the wind and at least 15 feet away from combustible materials, including overhanging branches. If there is no existing fire pit, build a retaining border from stones. Always extinguish your fire completely when finished, adding and stirring in water, sand or dirt until all material is cool.
Our field employees purposefully avoid parking on tall, dry grass to avoid hot engines igniting fires in the vegetation. Similarly, be cautious where you park or operate your own vehicle or equipment such as lawn mowers.