Sangre de Cristo Electrical Association has been working to clear 20 feet on either side of their power lines as part of their wildfire mitigation efforts.
The electric cooperative has already completed projects near Twin Lakes, in Chalk Canyon leading to St. Elmo and in north Cotopaxi. However, recent work at Deer Valley Ranch and upcoming projects in Buena Vista have been met with some resistance.
“There should be a major backlash against this type of practice,” said Uriah Werner, owner of Deer Valley Ranch. “They are not trimming around powerlines, but instead are clear-cutting 30 feet wide everywhere a powerline goes to a building.”
“We understand that our members value trees and vegetation around their properties, as does SDCEA. Our members also rely on SDCEA to provide safe and reliable power, something we take very seriously,” SDCEA’s online post reads. “Many of our consumers have experienced a heightened awareness of the potential risks for forest fires and interruption of power supply due to wildfires that have taken place this last year throughout the west and here in Colorado.
“Combined with the impacts of regional fires, such as the Decker and Hayden Pass fires, it is our hope our members understand the necessity of SDCEA’s focused efforts on vegetation management.”
The current “aggressive plan” SDCEA has now started 2-plus years ago.
“We felt that there was a very strong need to go in and start cutting again more aggressively,” said interim CEO Gary Kelly. “The plan is to go in and not trim. We wanted to essentially clear cut everything around (power lines) so it would be a long-lasting fix and we wouldn’t be back in 2 or 3 years to the same problem areas, and we wanted to mitigate that the best we could.
“We didn’t want to have to come back and fix a problem a couple of years from now,” he said, “so we felt that was the best way to spend our money.”
Kelly said that hazard trees are a particular focus of the clearing.
Hazard trees are dead or living trees that lean back toward power lines due to their root systems. Hazard trees can even end up resting on lines.
SDCEA’s vegetation management plans state that “crews will be working to clear trees and overgrown vegetation along company rights-of-way through the next several years.”
SDCEA contracts with Integrity Tree Service for the work, aiming “to clear 20 feet on either side of SDCEA’s poles.”
Canopies from trees outside the distance will be trimmed back to the 20-foot threshold, only being removed if they are hazard trees.
Deciding whether to trim or fell a tree hinges on how close the tree is to the line and whether trimming will look worse than fully cutting the tree down.
“We certainly don’t want to leave trees looking bad, so we may decide to take that tree out,” Kelly said. “Cutting trees around powerlines can look worse than clear-cutting. You can go up to Denver where they’ve cut trees that look like this V and powerlines going through the middle. It looks ridiculous, and it’s going to do nothing but cause problems in the future. So we would just assume to cut the tree down. It’ll look a whole lot better and obviously makes it much safer.”
Efforts by the electric co-op to clear hazardous trees and vegetation around their powerlines caused a stir at Deer Valley Ranch, which says the co-op isn’t just trimming but “trying to clear cut almost (the) entire ranch.”
Werner, who acquired Deer Valley Ranch in 2020, says SDCEA originally said they’d be trimming around the power lines. Not long after, his ranch manager called to let him know it was looking more like a clear cut. Werner is also concerned about the trees’ age and history at the ranch. He says some of the piñon pines being cleared are 200-300 years old. The ranch itself has been around since 1954.
Kelly said Integrity sends out a planner to contact the individual properties to explain the work they’ll be doing.
“He will hit all the individual properties, make contact with them, leave door hangers on there, he’ll call and email them,” Kelly said. “In some cases, we may reach out to certain people through our contact system if he’s having trouble … He’s usually out 2 weeks ahead of them, contacting them and flagging trees.”
“We do try to contact people to let them know they’ll be in certain areas,” said Chris McGinnis, SDCEA communications specialist. “It’s just essential. Fire danger is a real threat that threatens everyone’s lives and property, so this is a very important project. It’s difficult, but we’ve found it really necessary. It also has the benefit of helping us restore power in outages or preventing them.”
Three weeks ago, McGinnis said, a storm in Cotopaxi dropped a branch onto a power line. The video, available on SDCEA’s Facebook page, shows the branch sparking and burning as it sits on the line.
“There was a huge snowstorm down south,” she said. “If that’s a dry condition, it’s very serious. I know people value their trees, but that can be very dangerous.”
Kelly said he wanted to hear Werner’s concerns and that they had a meeting earlier this month.
“It’s not like we’re callous. We understand people don’t wanna lose their trees,” he said. “But I also don’t want to start a forest fire. I don’t want us to have to defend why we didn’t cut the trees. I’ve been there. It’s no fun.”
Overall, Kelly hasn’t seen too much backlash to their clearing efforts, he said.
“Most people are more than happy to have us in there cutting their trees because, one, it helps their defensible space, possibly around their living quarters,” he said. “It also helps with their insurance. We’ve seen some people that said their premiums have actually gone down on their homeowners’ insurance by us going and doing some clearing.”
After the meeting between Werner, SDCEA and some of the Deer Valley cabin owners, Werner said that while it wasn’t as bad as he thought, “it will still be quite devastating.
“Wherever there are transformers and non-insulated power lines, they’re going to be cutting,” Werner said. “It’s not as bad as I thought it was because they will not be clearing where the secondary lines go to our cabins, but wherever there are main power lines, and there are a lot of them, they’ll be clearing them.”
Byron Sims, DVR property manager, said that Integrity will, for the most part, be handling the downed branches and trees. Some of it will even be staying at Deer Valley as ground cover. In public land, the wood is chipped and put back in the right of way.
SDCEA’s online resource regarding its mitigation plans also points to two documentaries about the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which was sparked by a faulty power line. However, Kelly said he doesn’t have any major concerns about the condition of SDCEA’s lines.
“I think we maintain our lines very well,” he said. “But if you get a tree falling into a power line, I don’t care what its age is. That’s going to cause a problem. Old copper lines fall down. We don’t have virtually any copper left in the air, so our power lines have been maintained very well.”
“And what we do have left is on the docket to be replaced,” Doke added. “It just takes a lot of time to build.”
“That’s an investment taken very seriously here, ongoing investment in our infrastructure,” McGinnis said. “That’s actually a great thing about a co-op, working together to ensure that we’re doing the right thing by everybody.”
Kelly said he’s proud of the work Integrity has done, noting that they haven’t had any safety issues.
“They’re safe,” Kelly said. “When cutting trees around powerlines, accidents happen. Trees fall into power lines. They are outstanding when it comes to that, and then their public outreach has been just great. They represent us very well.”
There is also little room for compromise.
“We’re not really looking at trying to make any exceptions,” Kelly said. “We do offer up some (situations) where we could relocate the line or the line could be undergrounded. However, that would be at the cost of the consumer. The co-op would not absorb that cost. We do offer that option, and we’ve had a couple of people take us up on that. It can be expensive, and we have a couple of others that are considering it. But we don’t offer a lot of compromise.”
Though they’ve received a grant from the Colorado State Forest Service for the mitigation work, SDCEA members also pay a wildfire mitigation rider as part of their bill. In 2020, the board approved a $6 per month rate rider for 2021, with an incremental increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10 in 2025.
Kelly said the mitigation work is focused entirely on preventing fires and improving access.
“It’s not like we’re going in and just making work for ourselves,” he said. “We take safety very seriously, we take outages very seriously and we don’t want to cause any fires. We don’t want to be the cause of a problem.”
Doke said they’re prioritizing areas with higher densities of trees as they are at higher risk, and they’re spreading the work around the five counties to make progress across the service area.
They have 750 miles of line, all of which will be checked during the process. Kelly estimates that around 200 miles of line will need trees cleared.
“We base it off looking at impact in certain areas,” Doke said. “We decide where we want them to go based on our knowledge of the system.”
Still, he said, living in a lower-risk area doesn’t mean people won’t be impacted by a fire elsewhere in the SDCEA system.
“You don’t necessarily have to live in the trees to be impacted by a fire that started in the prairie section,” he said.
Still, frustration lingers. An SDCEA representative visited the Tree Advisory Board during its May 4 meeting. Clearing efforts inside town limits are expected to start in the fall.
Tree Advisory Board member Alison Hopkins expressed concerns about SDCEA’s plans to remove trees within town limits. At the TAB’s May 4 meeting, she said, an SDCEA representative said they’d be removing trees in a 15-foot radius from the power lines.
“Although I am a newer member, it is my understanding that this was an unprecedented plan of action,” she said.
Hopkins said she spoke with McGinnis at the May 16 co-op candidate forum and was told the project is still in the planning phase. SDCEA, she said, hopes to work with the town to come to an agreement.
“Another positive is that the work, according to (Tom) Linza, is not slated to begin in city limits until October 1 of this year,” Hopkins said, “giving ample time to inventory all trees that might be affected, and hopefully come to a resolution with SDCEA that does not decimate one of our town’s greatest assets, our trees.”
“I think there will be hell to pay with the residents of Buena Vista when they find out how much Sangre de Cristo wants to clear around town,” Werner said.
SDCEA is subject to the National Electrical Safety Code in its mitigation policies. SDCEA’s vegetation management plans are available online at www.myelectric.coop/safety/vegetation-management/. Rider information is also available online.
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