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Practical Steps Utility Companies Can Take to Reduce Wildfire Risks

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Jane Marsh's picture

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

  • Member since 2020
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  • Jun 10, 2022

Wildfires are a dangerous and increasingly common threat to many people. While many factors are to blame for these events, utility companies can’t ignore their part in them.

Power lines have caused six of the 20 most destructive fires in California since 2015. Even when utilities aren’t the underlying cause, these incidents often cut out vital power for people in the area, demanding businesses’ attention.

Thankfully, there are practical measures utility companies can take to reduce these risks. Here are five of the most important.

1. Move Infrastructure Away from Vegetation

The best way to reduce wildfire risks is to eliminate them entirely, which begins with removing hazards that could spark fires. One of the most common of these hazards is electrical infrastructure near flammable vegetation. While trimming trees and mowing grass can help, moving equipment is a better long-term solution.

For many utility networks, that means moving wires underground. Several cities, like San Diego, California, have started utility undergrounding programs to encourage this transition, often helping reduce the related costs. Since this can be a slow, expensive step, it’s best to underground the most fire-prone areas first before expanding.

2. Use the IoT to Gain Situational Awareness

Utility companies must also gain more insight into developing wildfire risks. The internet of things (IoT) provides the ideal solution here. IoT sensors can gather data like temperature, humidity, smoke, wind directions and other signals and transmit them wirelessly to businesses to provide a real-time picture of fire hazards.

These sensor arrays highlight areas in danger of a fire or where a current fire may spread. With this data, utility companies can respond faster and more effectively, cutting off power lines where necessary, alerting customers or calling emergency services.

3. Segment Grids and Ensure Backup Power

While preventing wildfires is crucial, power companies can’t expect to never experience a fire. Consequently, they must also have infrastructure in place to respond to these threats when they do arise. Segmentation and backup power are some of the most important of these mitigation steps.

Just as negative air machines protect areas from contamination by concentrating contaminated air in one area, grid segmentation minimizes fire-related power risks. If utility companies divide the grid into smaller zones, they can shut off electricity to one place to prevent sparks and reduce fire risks to protect the rest. Similarly, equipping segments with backup generators will help ensure ongoing support for critical systems if a fire endangers one area.

4. Aim for Long-Term Sustainability

While climate change isn’t the only cause of wildfires, utility companies can’t ignore it. As long as businesses rely on atmosphere-warming fossil fuels, the conditions that produce and exacerbate fires will persist. By contrast, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will limit fire frequency and intensity.

Of course, switching to zero-emissions energy means radically altering business models for some businesses. Consequently, this should be a long-term goal, not a quick fix. Utilities should aim to eventually eliminate or at least dramatically reduce emissions through renewable energy and technologies like carbon sequestration.

5. Invest in Community Education

Utility companies can also address wildfire hazards outside of their operations. The more people in the area know about wildfires and how to prevent them, the easier it will be to organize more effective unified efforts.

When customers inquire about getting service in new areas, businesses should inform them about the risks of over-suppression of fires and putting infrastructure near vegetation. Power companies can also run community education programs, possibly partnering with local fire departments or schools to equip the next generation. Holding public forums about wildfire risks and mitigation methods will help, too.

Utilities Must Do More to Stop Wildfires

Utility companies have a responsibility to minimize wildfire risks. If more companies can accept their role in these events and recognize effective mitigation strategies, they can make meaningful changes. Electric infrastructure can then provide needed power without endangering people or the surrounding environment.


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