Wooden utility poles burned down to the ground in a recent prairie fire in Colorado. What started as a controlled burn on a farmstead escalated into a fire that left 1000 homeowners without power, destroyed area homes, killed two volunteer firefighters and spread across more than 6500 acres. The fire also closed down highways, burned down bridges and forced officials to evacuate the town of Ordway and declare a state of emergency.

In the last month and a half, low moisture and high winds have fanned several wildfires in southern Colorado, which has received a third of the moisture of last year. Conditions are drier than in 2002, the worst wildfire season in the state's history, according to an Associated Press article.

As a result of these conditions, the state has enforced “red flag days,” which are high-risk fire days in which residents can't set any kind of outside fire. In the wake of the recent Ordway fire and a fire in Colorado Springs, Crowley County lso has enacted a fire ban, which prohibits fireworks, campfires and the burning of farmland, fields and debris.

Spreading Like Wildfire

In mid-April, the Southeast Colorado Power Association (SECPA; La Junta, Colorado) and neighboring utility Aquila (Kansas City, Missouri) were affected by the fast-moving wildfires. Thirty- to 40-mph winds fanned the flames on a southern Colorado farmstead halfway between Ordway and Crowley. Due to the extremely dry weather conditions, the farmers had not yet planted their crops, so the fire spread quickly through the weed patches and native grasses.

From the time it started at 10 a.m. on a Monday until 6 p.m. that night, it burned 14 sq miles. The fire spread from about 100 to 200 acres to 3500 acres in about an hour, and then to 6500 acres in the next hour, according to the local newspaper, the La Junta Tribune Democrat. The newspaper also noted that four tankers carrying 60,000 gallons of water were on scene to help, and people fought the fire by hand as it threatened their homes and outbuildings.

Restoring Power

The fire not only burned down farmsteads and homes, but it also downed power poles, which threatened roads and left homeowners without electricity. SECPA, a rural electric utility covering about 12,000 sq miles and 5300 miles of line, lost about 60 single- and three-phase distribution poles, and Aquila also lost 120 distribution poles. As the fire moved through the area, the poles caught fire and burned completely to the ground. Fortunately, the utilities didn't lose any other equipment.

Once SECPA's poles started going down, the utility's safety equipment started kicking in, and the utility was able to reroute power around the affected area. This allowed SECPA to keep power to its members who weren't in the area of the fire. For safety reasons, crews couldn't get into the area until the next morning to completely assess the damage. By the time crews arrived, the fire was out. The utility brought in three construction crews and started setting poles the following morning.

About 10 linemen students from Trinidad State Junior College spent two days helping with the restoration effort. On the first day, students pulled wire from burned poles, removed hardware, set new poles, framed poles and strung new conductor. The students spent the second day helping four crew members wreck out 30 miles of line and equipment. With the students' help, SECPA was able to fully restore power by 5 p.m. on the first day. Aquila crews also had the majority of their power restored by the end of the first day. At the start of the fire, electricity was out for 950 Aquila customers, but by the end of the first day, the 47 linemen had restored power to all but 129 customers. The Aquila crew restored power to these customers on the third day, when linemen completed all the poles and strung the wire that had been damaged.

Safety Concerns

Due to the extensive nature of the fire, the utility didn't have too much to clean up. Linemen also didn't face much danger once the fire had gone through the area. In a normal storm situation, crews would have to clear downed poles and wire to start building. In the case of the Ordway fire, however, the fire burned so hot that all that was left of the poles were just ash. The poles had literally been incinerated. Aquila crews had to contend with the smell of smoke in their garments. Next time the utility works on restoring power following a fire, the company plans to set up an area where the linemen can temporarily get away from the smoke. Also, if possible, the utility may set up a daily laundry service for the linemen. An Aquila spokesperson says that while the company didn't think of these safety measures on this fire, it will know better for next time.

The biggest hurdle SECPA linemen had to contend with was wind. The wind blew ashes and dirt around, making it difficult for the linemen to work and breathe in such conditions.

Back to Normal

Now that the new utility poles have been set, and the home-owners have power, the town of Ordway is trying to get back to normal. The community is using a $125,000 grant to plant native grass seed on about 4 sq miles. Slowly but surely, the area is recovering after the wildfire consumed homes and destroyed prairie land.


Jack Wolfe is the COO and director of safety and compliance for the Southeast Colorado Power Association in La Junta, Colorado. jackw@secpa.com

TIPS FOR KEEPING LINEMEN SAFE AFTER A FIRE

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), when linemen restore power following a fire, they can face the following hazards: fire, electrical hazards, carbon monoxide, musculoskeletal hazards, thermal stresses, heavy equipment, structural instability, hazardous materials, confined spaces, power line hazards, agricultural hazards, stress and fatigue. The following five tips will help linemen stay safe while restoring power following a fire.

  1. Don't overlook grounding

    Treat all power lines as energized until you have personally de-energized and tested them with an appropriate testing device. You also need to ground lines on both the load and supply sides of the work area. Through grounding, you can protect yourself from feedback electrical energy from a secondary power source, such as a portable generator. If you're working on restoring power in an underground vault, take extra precautions to avoid explosion hazards since explosive gases may form when electrical connections are drained, pumped out and energized. Also follow the guidelines for working in confined spaces.

  2. Beware of respiratory hazards

    Linemen may be exposed to ash, soot and fire-decomposition products that could irritate the lungs and cause respiratory side effects. Organic and agricultural materials can grow large amounts of bacteria and mold, and breathing in these organisms and dust could cause lung disease. To protect yourself, wear a well-fitting purifying respirator.

  3. Watch out for fire

    Smoldering wood or other debris can reignite if it comes in contact with a combustible material or if oxygen becomes available. Make sure that two fire extinguishers are available at every cleanup activity.

  4. Avoid electrocution

    Turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse at the electrical panel if water is present near the electrical equipment. Never enter flooded areas or touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet. Also, be aware of any fire damage to poles and other structures carrying overhead power lines and take caution when working on downed lines.

  5. Be careful on unstable surfaces

    Take caution when walking on piles of debris, trees and other vegetation. You can face the hazard of slips, falls, puncture wounds and collapsing materials. To protect yourself, wear the proper personal protective equipment such as hard hats and safety glasses. Also, never assume that fire-damaged structures or ground are stable.

  6. Minimize the risk of heat stress

    Exposure to a hot environment can cause heat stroke, heat cramps and fainting. Workers are advised to drink water, work during the cooler hours of the day and distribute the workload evenly throughout the day.

  7. Avoid fatigue

    If you are working on or near downed power lines, try to avoid stress, long hours and fatigue, which can increase the risk for injury and illness.