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New Forest Service Rules Aim To Prevent Wildfires Sparked By Power Lines

The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.

Courtesy of InciWeb

The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service is adopting a new rule meant to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires on public lands like California’s deadly 2018 Camp Fire.

The Forest Service’s new rule is intended to reduce the risk of future wildfires near electrical grids as the agency will work with utility companies for routine removal of dead and dying trees that pose fire risks. The agency will also streamline the review and approval process of the removal of trees and vegetation maintenance requests on national forests and grasslands and on abutting lands within right-of-ways for electric and transmission lines.

It’s being trumpeted by supportive lawmakers as a move that will lower the costs of delivering electricity to homes and communities.

California’s Camp Fire in Butte County killed 85 people, destroyed over 18,000 structures and burned over 150,000 acres. The Camp Fire is the deadliest and destructive fire in California history. After a thorough investigation by CAL Fire, the agency determined the fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric company. 

Eugene-based conservationist Andy Stahl said regular maintenance will be key to avoiding what happened during the Camp Fire.

“We want to make sure that the lines are well maintained and that when the worst happens and they break in a windstorm, which is when California had its problems that we don’t cause an inferno that we can’t control,” said Stahl, the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. 

Stahl said he was not concerned that the new rule gives an opening to more logging, given that trees already must be cut in powerline corridors before they get tall enough to interfere with the infrastructure -- which means they’re removed before they’re big enough to be milled into lumber. Stahl said he was also willing to accept the rule’s removal of requirements that utilities complete an environmental assessment or environmental statement when requesting to remove trees or do vegetation maintenance. 

“The power line already has the big environmental impact,” Stahl said. “That is when we allowed the power company to build a power line across National Forest. That is when the environment suffered.”

There are more than 3,000 electric transmission and distribution lines authorized on 18,000 miles of agency-managed land through special-use permits. 

The new rule is set to begin on August 10. 
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.