Staff support and multimillion-dollar grant keep Douglas Electric Cooperative in front of devastation
Story and photos by Craig Reed
Douglas Electric Cooperative (DEC) has a history of prioritizing fire mitigation work, but major wildfires in recent years have been strong reminders of why that work is important.
The continuing mitigation effort received a major boost earlier this year when the U.S. Forest Service approved DEC’s grant application, earning $9.1 million for the cooperative’s fire mitigation plan. The money is to be used over the next five years.
“We’re the only electric utility in Oregon to receive a Forest Service grant for fuels reduction,” says Keith Brooks, Douglas Electric’s general manager.
The utility is also the first to have one employee focus strictly on fire mitigation.
DEC named Todd Sherwood its fire mitigation manager early this year. Todd is a 30-year co-op employee. He started as a lineworker and worked his way up to operations superintendent before accepting this new assignment.
Keith says Todd, with his broad knowledge of the Douglas Electric transmission and distribution system, was the perfect person to lead the co-op’s fire mitigation effort.
“He’s seen almost every instance of what the system can do and what it can’t,” Keith says. “We wanted to take advantage of that institutional knowledge before he walked out the door. Todd is experienced, and he’s not scared of the technology involved in the fire mitigation program.”
Todd says his new role is evolving, but he likes the challenge.
“My goal is to find ways to identify and eliminate ignition sources,” he says. “I monitor rights-of-way work and progress. When special projects come up involving fire mitigation, I see that they’re done in an efficient manner.”
With the Forest Service grant providing key financial support, some of those projects include changing out the system’s 3,000 expulsion fuses for current-limiting fuses, replacing oil reclosers with electronic vacuum reclosers, installing insulated overhead conductors and fault-current indicators, and increasing the contracted rights-of-way clearing crews from 4 to 7.
Expulsion fuses have the potential to drop sparks to the ground, compared to current-limiting fuses, which are filled with spark-stopping sand. Fault-current indicators can help the co-op locate a problem faster.
The crews clear 30- to 50-foot rights-of- way along the electrical system, lessening the potential of brush, branches or trees falling on a line or fuse and sparking a wildfire. Crews work with and gain permission from federal, state and private agencies and individuals before doing the work.
The changing out of equipment is a multiyear project, and the rights-of-way clearing is scheduled for every three to four years. However, it’s not unusual for crews to return to an area more frequently to check for hazards following stormy weather.
The cooperative also has seven drones that can quickly access remote areas to check for potential ignition sources. Seven co-op employees are certified to pilot them.
“We’re trying to do the right thing to prevent our lines from sparking a wildfire, but there’s cost associated with all of these fire mitigation projects,” Keith says. “None of the upgrades are cheaper. The grant will get the work done faster.”
Douglas Electric’s system includes 90 miles of overhead transmission lines, 1,600 miles of overhead distribution lines and 10 substations. Half of the lines go cross- country through rough terrain with trees and are not next to a road. Most of those lines are accessible only by foot or all- terrain vehicles.
“The new equipment should give us more flexibility in controlling the system in a fire event,” Keith says. “We should be better able to pinpoint a problem and then control that distribution line rather than use a broad stroke like we do now.” During the 2020 Archie Creek Fire that burned east of Glide and Sutherlin, Douglas Electric shut off distribution to about 200 members as the fire threatened to come in their direction. By shutting off power to that area near the base of Mount Scott for a few days, the co-op eliminated the threat of its line starting another fire. “When in doubt, we’ll turn the power off,” Keith says. “We don’t want to, but we will if there’s potential for fire. Our goal is to keep the power on or to restore it as quickly as possible.”
In the case of a wildfire or other natural event, however, Bonneville Power Administration or Pacific Power could shut off power to the Douglas Electric substations they serve.
Keith and Todd remind DEC members they need to create defensive space around their own structures and property, and make a backup plan in case of power outages. That can include buying a gas-powered generator or creating an evacuation plan.
“There is little doubt that the West is hotter, drier and has more dead fuel lying on our forest floors than ever before,” Keith says. “Our wildfire season is now more than 30 days longer than it was just a couple decades ago, and it’s still growing.
“We support the aspects of legislation aimed at removing fuels and engaging quicker response times to wildfires in rural areas. Steps like prescribed burns and mechanical thinning as part of an overall strategy for forest management need to be implemented now.”