Fire Restoration Best Practices for Utilities
When the residents of Rock Creek – a small town in British Columbia just north of the Canadian-U.S. border – awoke to smoke on August 13, 2015, they quickly realized that danger was approaching. Fed by westerly winds, the Rock Creek fire spread from the west side of town to the east side, and then to surrounding communities. In total, it took just 45 minutes for the fire to make its way through the Rock Creek community, passing over Highway 33 and the Kettle River before heading northeast.
Visitors staying at Kettle River Provincial Park’s campground, located in Rock Creek, were forced to flee their campsites on foot and head toward the river. Area livestock were turned loose by their owners in hopes they would head for safer ground. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the bulk of the damage could be found a stone’s throw away from the center of Rock Creek. An estimated 4,500 hectares were ravaged.
Crews from Allteck – a utility contractor headquartered in Langley, British Columbia – were alerted to respond several hours after the fire passed through Rock Creek. One of the main feeder lines, KET1, had been destroyed, leaving residents without services. Telecommunications and radio towers also were disrupted, leaving few options for communications. Most residents and visitors affected by the fire had been transported to the local community of Midway, southeast of Rock Creek, where shelters had been established and the BC Wildfire Service had set up their central response. The fire was still burning to the northeast, with prevailing winds from the southwest. After consultation with FortisBC, the local utility, it was decided that power restoration would soon commence, although it would prove to be a challenge: Highway 33 – which provided access to the restoration area – was blocked by the authorities, and local fire crews continued to battle flare-ups in the area with helicopter support in the nearby hills.
Allteck crew members had gone through the company’s annual fire response protocol in January 2015, when there was still 2 feet of snow on the ground. Although fire response training feels awkward during that time of year, it proved to be particularly valuable after the Rock Creek fire erupted. The harsh reality is that there is no time to prepare in the wake of a fire. Only your training and response protocol can guide your strategy.
The 2016 fire season is predicted to be equally as challenging in British Columbia. As the season begins in many parts of Canada and the U.S., I want to take the time to explain how Allteck handled the Rock Creek fire and share some best practices we have put together over the years. After each fire we respond to, we discuss what we learned from the experience and add that knowledge to our training and response protocol. My hope is that by sharing this information, Allteck might be able to help other utilities and contractors should they find themselves involved in a restoration effort.
The first order of business in a fire restoration effort is to develop a plan with the local utility and establish clear lines of communication and access with the fire crews still active in the area. At this point, the utility manager should have been provided with field-level information regarding the damage. In the case of the KET1 main feeder line, FortisBC’s manager knew that more than 80 distribution poles had been burned to various degrees. There were several intermittent miles of downed three-phase conductor, transformers and residential services. Within approximately 48 hours, the following steps were taken to plan and organize the restoration work:
• Allteck representatives met with the main fire operations commander and coordinated the line restoration with the ongoing firefighting work. This is critical in any restoration effort because fire patterns can change quickly and workers must be able to safely and quickly escape the fire zone.
• We then obtained line isolation points and guarantee-of-isolation permits from FortisBC. Normal isolation points may not be an option, so temporary isolation points must be clearly established.
• Although many tap lines and services were destroyed, those that remained had to be isolated from potential backfeed. Not all residents obeyed the evacuation order, choosing instead to stay to defend their homes. Generators were a risk, so services were disconnected from the remaining distribution line and cutouts were opened at every possible location.
• An emergency response plan was developed that integrated the access points, isolation points, restrictions and support workers. All key contact information was detailed in this plan.
• Access to Highway 33 was restricted from the north and south, and the restoration work zone was along this highway. However, a number of local residents made attempts to access the work zone in order to assess the damage. Ongoing patrols of the area were required to ensure that the residents remained safely away from the construction activity.
• Structure sites were still hot in some locations, with hidden hot pockets continuing to burn under brush and inside poles. Poles were unstable and had the potential to bring down additional sections of line. Line crew supervisors prepared a structural assessment plan, made several structural assessments and organized the proposed work using a safe, systematic approach. These assessments also gave FortisBC additional information required for restoration materials.
Once the KET1 plans were reviewed and agreed upon, Allteck crews began to mobilize equipment and materials, which took roughly 24 hours. Central staging was located at the Kettle Valley Substation, well away from the direction of the fire still pushing northeast. The fastest access route to the staging area was directly through the fire zone from the north. After consultation with the fire commander, Allteck crews were granted permission to drive down Highway 33. Fire crews were informed about the upcoming activity. As the field crews drove through the fire zone, they were able to gain valuable information about the extent of the damage as well as greater understanding about the mitigations required to safely restore the KET1 line. Further mobilization efforts included the following steps:
• Twenty-four-hour security was implemented to guard the vast amount of equipment and materials being staged around the substation.
• Crew trucks were outfitted with shovels, Pulaski axes and water spray backpacks.
• Storage containers were delivered to the substation, and crews worked quickly to organize materials per the structural assessment plan.
• A mobile water holding tank and pump were prepared for the staging area.
• Crews working outside the fire zone managed to restore power in some areas, which provided power for the local cellular tower and VHF radio communications. This was favorable, as communication between fire crews and line crews was critical.
• Emergency locates were issued for underground utilities.
• It was determined that daily access hours for the site would be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The crew foreman was instructed to call the fire commander each day with the work plan, to obtain fire zone safety information and to contact the commander once all crews had exited the fire zone for the day. Fire and line crews were instructed to make daily activity updates at the coordination meeting held each day.
• Local authorities were informed about the restoration plan so they clearly understood which parties had permission to access the fire zone.
• Traffic control personnel were briefed on protocols so they could be positioned along Highway 33 once it was reopened to local traffic.
• A mobile treatment center was dispatched with an advanced first aid responder to support the crews in the immediate area.
• A detailed hazard assessment and work plan was finalized to address all of the hazards and mitigations for the project.
All Hands on Deck
On the morning of August 17, 2015, all crews, foremen, managers and the fire commander gathered for the initial field-level meeting. This meeting detailed the extent of the fire damage, current forest fire danger, containment progress, activity between restoration crews and firefighting crews, access restrictions and evacuation protocol. It was determined that the fire zone would become a multiemployer workplace and coordination of activity was essential.
The meeting also included an in-depth discussion of the hazard assessment plan, with particular attention paid to fire-damaged structures; site access; hidden dangers; grounding and bonding on downed lines; isolation and backfeed; public interaction; and evacuation information. The following points were made to address potential hazards:
• Transformers and conductors may still be hot to the touch. At a minimum, always wear leather gloves.
• Create solid working surfaces for truck outriggers. Fire debris may mask natural ground depressions not stable for leveling. Do not work over smoldering areas of ground.
• Use shovels to check out walking paths; hot spots are still possible under burned brush.
• Fire-damaged poles may break apart during handling. Rig the load to solid wood where possible and use slings on areas of the poles where tongs may not properly bite.
• Communicate clearly with adjacent crews. Work on one pole and line may significantly affect the stability of an adjacent structure.
• Keep workers out of the drop zone around damaged structures as the structures can break apart during handling.
• Keep clear of pole-butt pullers while they are being extended or retracted. Be especially cautious around fire-damaged butts if there is a possibility that the choker chain can abruptly release from the butt.
• When removing a fire-damaged conductor, verify that isolation points remain established for any conductor being handled in the air or on the ground. Maintain grounding and bonding continuity and drop the conductor to the ground. Verify both ends of the conductor are on the ground and are not crossed with any other conductors still in the air or tied in with other branch lines. Always handle unverified conductor on the ground with Class 1 primary gloves, and keep it away from any second points of contact.
• If signs and other markers used for buried facilities have been damaged by the fire, they may no longer be legible or visible. Check your prints, local information and general surroundings for potential hazards or unusual conditions.
• Be mindful of broken insulators, especially ones made of glass or porcelain. Fire will cause cracking, and the insulators are extremely sharp and will cut through conventional leather lineworker gloves.
• Damaged trees along the right-of-way may pose a danger to crews and line restoration efforts. Contact the assigned arborist to mitigate the hazard.
• Do not climb fire-damaged poles.
• A little bit of smoke coming from a pole could mean extensive damages and that deep ember pockets are still burning. Use Pulaski axes and check the pole for stability once it is secured with the digger trucks. Use water packs or call for the water tank pump system to put out and cool the pole. Any fire that cannot be controlled must immediately be communicated to the fire response crews.
• Add extra straps to the transport trucks hauling fire-damaged poles. Ensure that unstable sections are secured for transport and all fire potential has been completely extinguished.
• The weather will still be hot and dry. Keep hydrated with plenty of water. Crew members should watch each other for signs of dehydration and seek first aid at initial signs.
• The air will be smoky and may cause lung irritation. Cease activity if the smoke affects visibility and breathing.
• Keep radios and phones close by and monitor the fire activity regularly. Evacuation orders from the fire zone may come at any time.
• Be aware of local residents entering your work zone to ask questions and request assistance. Be sympathetic to their concerns, but ensure their immediate safety. Refer persistent issues to your foreman.
Power is Restored
After several weeks of restoration efforts, the KET1 line was rebuilt and power was restored to the Rock Creek community, although that was little comfort for heartbroken residents who lost a total of 30 homes to the fire. The bravery of those crews that fought to control the blaze was quickly realized upon return to Kettle River Provincial Park’s campground. As the 70 campers re-entered the gates to the park, there was almost nothing to be found but devastation. Yet at the main camp area, all the campsites and vehicles remained untouched. Fire crews had managed to direct the fire north, sparing the main campsite by several yards. The cause of the fire is suspected to have been a discarded cigarette butt from a vehicle along the highway.
As we enter this year’s fire season, be prepared. Arm your crews with information and training to best prepare them for both the dangers and strategies for success. And please share any ideas, additional strategies and hazards from your experiences so we can build upon the successes of the past.
About the Author: Chris Grajek, CRSP, CUSP, has been Allteck’s director of health and safety since 2006. He leads a team of trades trainers and field safety coordinators for local and international construction and maintenance activities. Grajek is also involved with a number of transmission and distribution partnership task teams and provides instruction on a wide range of utility-driven training initiatives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.