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Wildfires in West challenging utilities

Initially, I thought I'd list a few of the most compelling issues of past weeks to identify power industry priorities on some level. But I cannot focus on relatively mundane matters right now. 

Instead, I'll just offer a smidge of insight into the impacts wrought by the terrible fires plaguing my home state of Colorado. 

Living and working in the Denver metro area, we've obviously been impacted by the catastrophic wildfires burning along the Front Range here these past weeks. Air quality in Denver has been significantly degraded for nearly a month as a series of wildfires raged outside Fort Collins and Boulder to the north and Colorado Springs to the south, making it unwise to exercise outdoors. 

Smaller fires burn in the mountains and mesas to the west, while another enormous fire has swept the prairie to the east. Mercifully, as I write, loss of life has been minimal, while property damage has been horrendous, with well over 600 homes gone outside Fort Collins and Colorado Springs alone. The impacts on flora and fauna can only be assessed when the last ember is extinguished. Half the federal fire-fighting forces in the nation are here, fighting for us. We are besieged, even as successful firefighting efforts lift our hopes.

For the vast majority of Colorado residents, one looming question is what will happen over the next 100 days that constitute the worst part of the fire season? In the Denver metro area, we are not in any immediate danger, not compared to the vagaries faced by firefighters on the front lines or for the communities adjacent to the fires, where tens of thousands of people have fled smoke and flames. 

ut I bring up this issue in this column because the utilities serving these municipalities—and others around the state, facing other fires—have been on the front lines as well. 

In Colorado Springs, where Friday as I write this column the most dangerous of the fires continued to burn, Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) has provided 22 members of its Wildland Fire Team to the coordinated response to the horrifying Waldo Canyon fire.

I didn't burden CSU with a call to determine utility-specific concerns, so as not to distract its staff unnecessarily, but it's not difficult to ascertain several of the most pressing issues. For an integrated utility such as CSU, which provides electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater services to its beleaguered citizens, clearly the need to deal with fire-related, peak demands for energy and water is one priority. This occurs in the context of a week of record high temperatures, which has already created taxing demands for those resources. Another is ensuring that natural gas lines in harm's way, for instance, are shut off and/or closely monitored. Restoration of service has been a carefully considered measure, based on the possibility that thousands of evacuees in a patchwork of threatened areas might be allowed home. Changing conditions and an aggressive fire has made that scenario uncertain. 

The unprecedented Waldo Canyon fire, which already Friday had taken hundreds of homes and perhaps as much as 20,000 acres of woodlands that serve as community watershed for Colorado Springs, undoubtedly has posed new challenges that are being addressed on the fly and will provide guidance for future planning and operations. In fact, yesterday (June 28), flash flood warnings were issues for the burned out watershed as thunderstorms gathered. CSU has been involved in a program with the United States Forest Service to address the fuel buildup in its watershed for several years, for instance; but that's a multi-year effort that could not stem the present disaster. 

It's worth noting that "utilities are people," too. More than 300 CSU employees have either lost homes or been evacuated in this catastrophe and the utility is working on a plan to assist them, although Colorado communities are all pitching in to mitigate the homelessness and daily needs of more than 30,000 citizens in that metro area, which for many years I called home. 

Whenever these ongoing fires are extinguished, the fire danger up and down more than 250 miles of Front Range, and across a state of 63 million acres, multiplied by more than a dozen at-risk Western states, will continue into autumn. Utilities across the West undoubtedly are reviewing their contingency plans for addressing the threat and methodically ensuring that they can take concrete steps to serve and protect the public interest.

If I have any point to make, it's this: We're in a presidential election year with our differences splayed across newspapers, computer and television screens, as well as over the back fence. We're still bumping along, looking for a way out of a recession. For those of us in the energy sector, we're still debating whether we should have a federal energy policy and what that should look like. We're in the midst of grid modernization, which has proponents and skeptics. We're having constructive dialogue on these issues, yet we're also wasting considerable time and energy when we simply promote our differences. 

I'm no Rodney King, but here in Colorado, at least, we're having to set those differences aside in a mutual effort to save life, limb, wildlands, wildlife and the sustenance and economic benefits that they provide. We have skilled, trained people on the front lines and we have an army of citizens backing them up. We're organizing to care for the injured and displaced. Little peace of mind will be ours until the fires are out and the danger has receded. 

We can argue the issues later, once the primary threat has been met. 

P.S. If you were planning to come to Colorado this summer on vacation, don't cancel. Just check on conditions in the area you plan to visit. 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily 

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