North Idaho has many virtues. Among them are its many mountains, lakes, streams and forests. They are stunningly beautiful and afford many pleasures to those of us who call this our home. Protecting them is important. It can also be complicated. This past fire season offered a good example of that. Efforts to protect our forests sometimes overlook the need to manage the dense undergrowth within them. During dry years such as this past one, they become tinderboxes with dangerous potential. One smoldering camp fire, a lightning strike during a summer storm or a tree falling into a power line is all that is needed for that potential to be unleashed. It’s this latter source of fire that is of primary concern to KEC and the subject of this article.
When a tree falls into a power line, it causes a short circuit. Usually, that causes a power outage. Sometimes, it also creates a fire. Almost always, it greatly inconveniences our members. To avoid this, KEC goes to great lengths. For instance, half of our power lines have been built underground and almost all new construction is. To minimize the risk of trees contacting our overhead lines, KEC cuts the trees and mows the underbrush that grows within the easements they are built within. Every year, KEC clears some 325 miles of power line easements and spends more than $850,000 doing so.
Even with all these efforts, trees remain the largest cause of power outages. This was certainly true during the November wind storm and the December snow storm. Each caused outages for about 70 percent of our members. Almost all of these outages resulted from trees contacting our power lines. For many, that begs the question: Are we being aggressive enough?
In answering that question, consider this. Most of the trees that cause outages are not within our power line easements. While KEC has the authority to cut trees that grow within these easements, we do not have the authority to cut those growing outside of them. For context, our typical easement is 30 feet wide with the power line being in the middle of it. Before removing a tree which threatens our power lines growing outside our easement, landowner permission is needed. KEC makes this easy for landowners. All they need to do is say ‘yes’ and the trees will be removed at no cost to them. But what if they say ‘no?’
Historically, utilities have begrudgingly accepted that risk. While it is my conviction that KEC has been more aggressive in removing these trees than most utilities, we too have accepted ‘no’ when the landowner is firmly opposed. Going forward, KEC is changing our approach to these situations. Landowners who are unwilling to allow KEC to remove trees on their property which threaten our power lines will be notified in writing of their liability for damage those trees may cause. In the event they do, KEC will pursue financial restitution for the damage caused. Alternatively, KEC will be happy to remove the trees in question without cost to the landowner. While we recognize this approach may appear heavy handed to some, it’s important to recognize that KEC is owned by those it serves. Absent such an approach, damages caused by one end up being paid for by all. Furthermore, the risk of forest fires created by these trees cannot be overlooked.
KEC is also making another important change regarding tree clearing that members should be aware of. There are a small number of trees that KEC has permitted to grow within our easements. Again, this is usually due to landowner insistence. In lieu of removing them outright, we have trimmed the limbs around the power lines. In the future, these accommodations will be rare and only granted when the risk of fire or outages are almost non-existent. When an accommodation is made, the tree will be cut so that its normal growth occurring before the next maintenance cycle, plus two years, will not encroach the safe operating distance of our power lines. This is two more years of growth than is our current practice and is necessary to accommodate for heavy growth seasons.
I’d like to conclude this article with one final word on tree management. It’s also the most important one. All of KEC’s efforts to clear trees around our power lines are rooted in safety. We encourage our members to be mindful of it as well. If you have a tree on your property that needs to be removed and could fall into a power line, please don’t cut it down yourself. Call KEC. If it’s threatening our power lines, we will be happy to remove it at no cost. In the event it’s not, we can help you identify a qualified arborist who can help you do so.
If you have any questions or would like to report a tree in need of removal, please contact us at 208-765-1200.
KEC General Manager