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Wildfires & mud: Crews repair damaged transmission line in Peace country

Image of crew that worked on damaged transmission lines at Fort St. John
BC Hydro crew members ride a track machine over muddy terrain north of Fort St. John en route to repairing transmission line damaged by a wildfire.

After dozens of poles burned and fell near Fort St. John, crews delivered

How early is the wildfire season in 2016? BC Hydro crews waking up for work during the Beatton Airport Road wildfire near Fort St. John last month saw not ash, but snow, floating to the ground.

"It was weird," recalls BC Hydro transmission services manager Steve Fowles, who was brought in from Kamloops to help coordinate repairs to a damaged transmission line. "I woke up to a light dusting of snow one morning… during a forest fire."

Pushed by winds that regularly changed direction, the wildfire sped back and forth across a BC Hydro transmission line right of way and burned through nearly 60 wood poles on a 138,000-volt line north of Fort St. John. The power line has since been repaired, but the Beatton Airport Road fire is now more than two weeks old, and a state of emergency has been declared for the Peace River Regional District.

The big problem for BC Hydro crews tasked with repairing the transmission line wasn't that dusting of snow, but the deep mud that was everywhere.

The start of the wildfire was cruelly timed for spring breakup, when frozen ground thaws and makes regular vehicle travel through the bush impossible. BC Hydro crews at first moved trucks loaded with tools and supplies across "swamp mats" – placed on the mud ahead of the trucks – that prevented wheels from sinking. But the going was slow.

"In one location we were able to get the trucks over a temporary road via swamp mats," says Fowles. "It worked, but if you figured you could go off the swamp mat in an ATV, you were wrong. As soon as you got off the swamp mat, the ATVs would just bury themselves in the mud."

The restoration effort turned to "track machines", a few owned by BC Hydro and several others leased or rented and shipped from Calgary. The tank-like track machines carried crews and equipment, which had been brought in by truck to the outer limits of country roads in the area, over the mud to the transmission line.

'We had a lot of manpower and the right equipment'

The Beatton Airport Road wildfire started taking out poles, and caused a power outage to about 2,800 customers north of Fort St. John, on Monday, April 19th. The first day BC Hydro was able to use a helicopter to fly over the transmission line to assess the damage, there were just 16 poles down – but within a couple days, there were close to 60.

We couldn't get into the area to repair the lines for several days, however, as the damaged area was still in the fire zone. That gave us time to assemble 12 BC Hydro crews, two contractor crews, along with poles, materials and other equipment - including a satellite-equipped mobile office – to what's known as a "laydown site" on a gas company-owned piece of property near the transmission line. From there, the crews were able to quickly get to work replacing the burned out poles.

"We said we'd have the line ready to be re-energized by late Monday afternoon, and I think we had it back at 5 p.m. Monday night," said Fowles of a repair effort that took less than five days. "We had a lot of manpower and the right equipment."

While BC Hydro's highest voltage, 500-kilovolt transmission lines are built with steel towers that Fowles calls "almost bulletproof" and generally safe from fires, lower-voltage 138-kV and 69-kV lines use wood poles almost exclusively.

So the work in the tinder-dry Peace region of the province is anything but done. Last Sunday, with wildfires still raging in the area, four more transmission poles burned down. And Fowles says crews are now working with contractors to spray wooden poles with fire retardant – and also clearing brush near the most endangered poles – in certain areas.

"It's extremely tinder dry – they've had very little rain and a fair bit of wind," said Fowles. "So the fire moves through the grass and small timber quickly."

"I think this is going to be a crazy year," he adds. "I get fire notifications from throughout the province on my iPhone, and I started getting them about 7 or 8 weeks earlier than normal. I'm like, ‘What the heck's going on?"