CORE Electric Cooperative has always faced an elevated wildfire risk in its 5,000-mile service territory with its mountainous terrain and 157,000 distribution poles. Over the last decade, however, wildfire has inflicted devastating effects to the state’s communities and local habitats.
In Colorado, where wildfire season is year-round, CORE’s approach to wildfire mitigation and system reliability is centered around proactive approaches.
“We perform daily inspections and repairs of the system as well as implement equipment and components that minimize the risk that our equipment will start a wildfire,” says T.J. Havens, Conifer district manager.
Several years ago, the cooperative launched the wildfire mitigation program, and recently it enhanced the program to CORE PROTECT, using a dynamic approach and deploying new technologies. The revised program has four key aspects—risk analysis (understanding the current system); mitigation (addressing potential issues); situational awareness (identifying current and near-future conditions) and wildfire response. Here are six strategies CORE Electric Cooperative and its field workforce use to minimize wildfire risk and protect the community and service territory.
1. Perform Aerial and Ground Patrols.
To take a proactive approach to wildfire mitigation, the cooperative performs both ground and aerial patrols. CORE line crews perform inspections by foot, and contractors specialize in infrastructure inspections using drones. Two contracted FAA-licensed providers capture high-resolution images and use heat-detecting infrared technology to identify wildfire risks.
Case in point: in 2022, more than 15,000 poles were inspected by drone throughout the service territory. The drones capture several images per pole in both high-definition and infrared. They are then analyzed to identify any of the defects from a top-down and side view.
“Thus far, the program has been very successful in identifying defects,” Havens says. “They allow lineworkers to focus on repairs.”
2. Install Cameras.
To expand its mitigation efforts, CORE employees installed Forest Technology Systems by AEM on radio towers rather than poles to provide the best possible view.
“They have the functionality to point, tilt and zoom to an incredible degree, giving CORE and our emergency management partners the ability to remotely view conditions and nearby active fires in real time,” says Jordan Ambrogi, wildfire mitigation program manager for CORE.
The second type of cameras installed on the radio towers are automated fire watch cameras by Pano AI. These camaeras take a new 360-deg panorama every minute. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology monitors the images to detect smoke plumes within minutes of a fire starting. If it detects a smoke plume, it sends an alert to CORE and its partners with a link to the video feed, providing early detection and situational awareness. When two of these cameras can see the same fire, they will triangulate to give emergency responders a precise location of where it is occurring.
3. Analyze Satellite Imagery to Spot Hazard Trees.
As part of its proactive approach, CORE also is leveraging technology to identify hazard trees in its service territory. The cooperative is engaged in a partnership with Overstory, which uses AI machine learning to analyze satellite imagery and identify dead and encroaching vegetation that poses threats.
“Hazard trees pose one of the greatest external threats to our lines and have been the cause of several catastrophic fires in the West,” Ambrogi says. “Overstory can identify areas of widespread decline in tree health, which allows our inspectors to prioritize work in these regions.”
4. Install Smart Fault Indicators.
CORE is also piloting smart fault indicators from Sentient. This technology gives the cooperative more precision on the expected location of a fault. In turn, this reduces the patrol time for line crews and allows them to repair and restore power for shorter outages.
In addition, the technology gives the cooperative detailed information on the wave pattern of the fault current that was present. This information can be used to determine the probable cause of the fault.
In addition, CORE can also activate more sensitive circuit protection settings during high wind, red flag warnings and other elevated fire risk conditions. If a tree falls into a power line, the settings allow the devices protecting the line to trip instantly.
5. Harden the System and Place Infrastructure Underground.
The cooperative is hardening its system in several ways including building taller, stronger poles that can withstand high winds and snow conditions. Lineworkers are also installing 10 ft fiberglass crossarms designed for improved strength and greater distance between lines. Another top priority is covering up energized parts, which can cause a spark if contacted by wildlife or vegetation.
In addition, the lineworkers are undergrounding lines in high-risk areas.
“Where feasible, all lines scheduled to be rebuilt in high wildfire risk areas as defined by the Colorado State Fire Service are designated to be relocated underground,” Havens says.
When considering which lines to bury underground, the biggest consideration is the underlying wildfire risk. The cooperative uses the wildfire risk assessment from CSFS to determine the highest risk lines to be considered for undergrounding. Other factors include the presence of shallow bedrock and sensitive historical and ecological sites that could be disturbed by undergrounding. System design also plays a key role in the decision.
6. Monitor the Weather Conditions.
CORE subscribes to DTN Weather Service to receive daily reports of weather conditions in its service territory including wildfire risk. Additional daily fire risk data is obtained through a combination of map services provided from National Ocean and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s Warnings and Watches map service and from the USFS Wildland Fire Assessment System map service.
CORE System Operators log weather conditions and send pertinent information and warnings to all operations personnel and contractors, and GIS republishes these map services to the daily operation map service.
“This situational awareness allows CORE to adapt daily operations, emergency preparedness and risk mitigation efforts to changes in fire conditions,” Ambrogi says.
Looking ahead, the cooperative is considering a more advanced risk forecasting tool that will enhance situational awareness. In addition, the cooperative is looking at more sensitive and remotely controllable protection devices.
“We are always evaluating new tools and technologies to stay on the cutting edge of utility-scale wildfire mitigation efforts,” Ambrogi says. “We are continually evaluating and optimizing the program and gleaning best practices and learnings from other utilities and partners across Colorado and the United States.”
For CORE Electric Cooperative, wildfire mitigation is a top priority.
“Many of CORE’s own employees live in the high-risk areas of the service territory, so taking action to keep our members, communities and own employees and their families safe is CORE’s number one priority,” Havens says.