In June, a costly and deadly wildfire tore through the Colorado mountains, incinerating power poles, trees and grasslands. The fire started with a small plume of smoke near Pikes Peak and then escalated into a major fire that destroyed 346 homes and necessitated the evacuation of more than 32,000 residents in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Following the fire, Colorado Springs Utilities worked to keep customers safe and restore service. Here is what happened in the five days after the fire started to when linemen began restoring power.
Day One: Getting Prepared
Springs Utilities sprung into action after the smoke was first spotted. After getting a call from the fire department, the utility crews immediately drove up into the mountains to investigate the exact location and severity of the fire.
As the hours progressed, the linemen tried to get more details about where the fire was located since the utility operates many facilities in that area. A few hours after the fire had started, the news crews started rolling in, and they provided the line crews with more details about the wildfire.
At that point, it was impossible for the linemen to get up the mountain to see where the fire was located. While they knew it was in the Waldo Canyon area, they didn't know where it was heading. The crews began preparing for what would happen if the fire traveled south and tore into Manitou Springs, home of about 5,000 people in the Springs Utilities' service area.
Day Two: De-energizing Lines
The next day, the fire was still hiding from the field crews, and the linemen stood waiting to see in which direction it would go in and what facilities would be affected. The fire grew and moved toward a neighborhood called Cedar Heights, just to the west of Colorado Springs. The linemen then prepared to de-energize that area and move into more of a defensive mode. The utility's control center had to decide what they could save, and what they were prepared to let be consumed by the fire due to safety reasons.
Springs Utilities then worked with incident command, consisting of the forest service and the fire department, to find out exactly what lines they needed to de-energize. The utility was trying to keep a large pump station for Rampart Reservoir and a communications tower on a line going into Green Mountain Falls online as long as they could. They knew that sooner or later, however, this line would be damaged by the fire, so they opted to de-energize a portion of it.
Day Three: Monitoring the Situation
On Monday, the fire took off, and Springs Utilities had a better idea of where it was going to go. It was bumping up against the Cedar Heights subdivision, and if the fire crossed the fire line, it would easily reach the nearby houses. Instead, it came down to Highway 24, which runs through Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls. The linemen then de-energized several single-phase lines under the instruction of incident command because they were concerned about the houses in these residential communities.
Day Four: Fire Reaches Structures
On Tuesday morning, it looked like the fire was getting more under control, and the conditions looked promising. Mother Nature, however, had other plans. The fire was growing to parts of the forest that were uninhabited and pushing away from residential communities and electric facilities. Around noon that day, however, the wind started to shift and go back to the north and east. Springs Utilities kept a good eye on the fire and looked at different scenarios, such as whether or not it could come across different ridges.
Later that day, the fire was hanging on the top of the ridges and jumping quickly from ridge to ridge. The fire had started moving down from Queen's Canyon toward the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. At that point, the order was given to evacuate the neighborhood of Mountain Shadows and other houses near the national forest.
Springs Utilities and other agencies did not expect the fire to go that far north. The smoke, however, was coming from the north and crossing the ridge. As citizens evacuated from their homes, the traffic was horrendous. The wind was blowing 65 mph down the slopes of the mountain, and structures were on fire.
The fire department commanded the utility to de-energize neighborhoods closest to the fire, which it was reluctant to do at first because it wanted to make sure that the signal lights were operational to help with the evacuations and to keep a series of large water pump stations on-line. However, Springs Utilities opted to de-energize the line by opening up three distribution breakers that fed the neighborhoods. The control center deemed this method to be the fastest and easiest way to de-energize a large group of customers. Once the fire escalated, the utility didn't want to re-energize homes that were already engulfed in flames.
The de-energization of the northwest part of town took 7,000 customers off-line. Fifteen minutes after they had finished de-energizing the line, however, the fire department instructed the field crews to re-energize a portion of that line to get water pump stations back on-line. The firefighters lost significant water pressure to several closest to the Wilson tank once the water pump stations went off-line. The linemen then had to figure out how to get the water tanks energized and get them flowing so they could have water pressure to fight the fires on those streets.
With the help of Springs Utilities' Wildland Fire Team, a volunteer fire department, the utility was able to get the power restored and the water tank back on-line. This team, which includes 25 field professionals from the electric, water and gas divisions, aims to protect watersheds and the utility's infrastructure. They are trained and equipped to respond as wildland firefighters outside of their normal duties. As such, they are a tremendous asset to the company's watershed management and provide a unique perspective and expertise during firefighting efforts.
Following the recent fire, the team members served as escorts for the linemen to safely transport them into the fire-damaged areas. They also allowed the field crews to reenergize the infrastructure quickly with safety in mind.
In the evening, the utility knew from talking to the firefighters that several homes were on fire, but the exact number had not yet been determined. To get the water tank back on, linemen had to re-energize a few of the homes that had been damaged.
Day Five and Beyond: Assessing Damage
On Wednesday, Springs Utilities was able to get a clearer picture of the fire damage. The field workforce learned that hundreds of homes were burned. While some were completely destroyed, others sustained significant damage.
Despite the fact that the utility was faced with bad news when it came to the houses, damage to electric infrastructure could have been much worse. Only a small portion of the line was overhead.
On Thursday, the line crews conducted assessments in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Linemen discovered that 13 transformers had to be replaced and the fuses were blown in 30 additional transformers. They also found out that they had to replace two spans of underground conductor as well as four overhead transformers and 15 wood poles near the Flying W Ranch, a tourist attraction. Several spans of overhead conductor were also down at that point.
Upon further investigation, the linemen discovered that the underground conductor was burned beyond recognition. The underground transformer got so hot that all the interior components were melted. After catching fire, the wood poles fell down to the ground and were broken. The conductor followed suit and fell down to the ground along with the poles.
The linemen weren't able to inspect the line that ran from the Air Force Academy to Green Mountain Falls through Pikes Peak National Forest that they had isolated. It appeared that it would be a total loss. For that reason, they were gearing up for a lot of work in that area.
On Saturday, June 30, Incident Command allowed a Springs Utilities crew to enter Mountain Shadows to start the last of the restoration effort. The linemen tried to restore power to everyone who had a salvageable house and could take electricity. They isolated the services to the 346 homes that were destroyed, replaced and refused the underground transformers that were damaged, and replaced the underground conductor.
The linemen tried to restore power to everyone who had a salvageable house and could take electricity. They also replaced the underground transformer that was damaged as well as three others that needed to be replaced.
To help them with this effort, Springs Utilities equipped all of the troublemen's trucks with global information systems, mobile mapping and laptop computers so they could quickly see which homes had been damaged or destroyed. They then knew how many homes they needed to shut off and how many transformers they had to put out of service. This helped the linemen to be ahead of the game rather than walking up to each house for inspection. By having all the information at their fingertips, the linemen and troublemen were able to be more efficient during the power-restoration process.
By July 1, all the residential, commercial and industrial customers who could take power were restored. The next week, linemen focused on getting up into the mountains to investigate the line that runs across Pikes Peak National Forest. They discovered that 22 poles and four spans of conductor needed to be replaced.
As of Friday, July 27, all but nine poles were completed on that project. The last nine poles were located in an area with a rugged terrain, and as a result, they will take longer to replace. Springs Utilities hired Colorado Powerline Inc. to replace the remaining poles and conductor in the remote region.
The utility also had to restore power back to the pumping station that had been de-energized early on in the fire. In addition, linemen turned electricity back on for Eagle Lake campground that was spared by the fire.
At the end of the fire, 346 homes were destroyed, all of them located in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. As the homeowners start to rebuild these homes, Springs Utilities will need to continually replace service to the homes. For the linemen, it will be like working with new construction.
Over the next few months and years, the businesses and homeowners will continue to rebuild and restore structures. Meanwhile, Springs Utilities' linemen will be there to help restore electricity following one of the state's most severe wildfires.
Mathew Wells ([email protected]) is the electric operations superintendent for distribution control for Colorado Springs Utilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has been with the company for nine years and is responsible for running the control center on the distribution side. Before joining Springs Utilities, he served as the head dispatcher of distribution control for 14 years for CenterPoint Energy in Houston, Texas.