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BC Hydro crews take to the skies, trails to access remote terrain

Porcher Island from helicopter
Helicopter approaches Porcher Island near Prince Rupert to drop off BC Hydro crews for repairs to a damaged distribution line.

When lines go down in remote areas, crews must battle weather, tides and more

With some of the best natural scenery in the world, B.C. is a paradise for hikers, bikers and boaters. But rugged, beautiful terrain is not exactly ideal when it comes to repairing power lines.

Luckily, BC Hydro's crews are ready to rise to the challenge — literally.

A recent storm damaged a distribution line on Porcher Island, southwest of Prince Rupert. Remote communities on the island need the line for reliable power, so a BC Hydro crew headed out to make repairs that were anything but routine.

Work on Porcher Island requires crews to fly out from our district office in Prince Rupert, while the equipment and tools that they need are sent to meet them by barge or water taxi. Once they land, the crew sets off hiking from the closest helicopter pad to the work site.

Clayton Dunsford, the line manager who led the crew, says that getting to the island is only the first hurdle.

During the first hike in to make the repairs, he was shocked at how difficult it was to get through the thick, swampy brush. Porcher Island is known for its wet, muskeg-laden terrain — which can get even trickier to navigate in adverse weather conditions.

Dunsford is an electrician by trade, and his first experience on the ground was an eye-opener. "Flying the line in a helicopter doesn't do it justice," he says. "Weather's a big issue — it's like a swamp out there, very wet."

While the crew enjoyed ideal conditions for this particular job, they aren't always so lucky. Teams in the region head out to Porcher Island and other remote areas in every kind of weather imaginable.

Navigating trees and tides, carefully

Getting the tools to the work area from the helicopter isn't any easier than the hike in. The pilot must carefully maintain a safe distance from live conductors and large trees, and the crew must watch out for the "wash" created by the helicopter blades while the basket is being lowered into position.

"You've got really tall trees on either side of the right of way, you've got your limits of approach [the safe distance everyone must maintain from live power lines], it's a bit dicey," Clayton explains.

And once the tools are in place, there's still the matter of actually performing the work. On this job, crews had to make repairs in several locations and replace a burnt pole.

A pole replacement, Clayton says, isn't always the simplest job. And it's certainly not any made any easier by a hike over rough terrain. After making the repairs, the helicopter picks up the tools. Then it's back to the helipad to reach the next site along the line.

At one point, Clayton says, there wasn't a helipad near the work site, so the team was dropped on a beach, timed to align with low tide. Then they hiked in, completed the work and made their way back to the beach before the tide could change.

Racing the tide, hiking remote islands, helicopter rides — it may sound like something from a spy movie or an extreme adventure challenge. But with some careful planning, it's all in a day's work for the crew, says Clayton.

Biggest challenge comes before the work even starts

Coordinating work like this involves a lot of preparation, and that can be daunting. It takes some time to get all the equipment you need or think you need, and delays can be time-consuming and costly

"There's a lot of prep work involved — deciding where you're going to put the barge, how much fuel the helicopter is going to need," he says, describing the role of the sub-foreman, responsible for all the planning and coordination.

Clayton recalls his anxiety from similar work on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, saying: "You lay in bed the night before hoping that you haven't forgotten something. It causes you some sleepless nights."

Although the job isn't without its challenges, Clayton says he and his team lover projects like this.

"When you get everything done and the work is finished, that's a great feeling," he says.