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We’re ready for wildfire season. Are you?

Power poles stored across B.C. for wildfire readiness.
During the summer 2023 Shuswap wildfires, replacement power poles were shipped to BC Hydro crews working to repair power lines.

Storing replacement poles and respirator cartridges across B.C.

Growing up in New Westminster, Ken MacPherson never saw a sunset masked by the acrid orange-brown smoke of a wildfire summer. He had also never heard of a zombie wildfire, atmospheric river or, for that matter, a tiny important item known as a respirator cartridge.

Today, as manager of our materials management and supply chain, he's more than acquainted with smoky skies. And as longer and more intense wildfire seasons have become a certainty rather than an anomaly, it's vital that he and his team plan early for the likes of over-wintering fires – otherwise known as zombie fires – that smoulder below-ground before springing to life once again. When you're part of the team in charge of ensuring that replacement poles, cables and other equipment are at the ready and locally available, you quickly learn the latest buzzwords around wildfires and weather.

It was the atmospheric river of November 2021 that reinforced our need to store more emergency materials outside of our main materials supply facility in Surrey. During the event, nearly a month's worth of rain hit B.C. in 48 hours, causing flooding and slides, and knocking out highway links to the Interior.

And with our crews working to replace burned poles and string cable with dangerous smoke in the air, it became vital that wildfire kits be made widely available to them. These kits include protective gloves, Tyvek coveralls and cartridges for respirators that protect crews against gases and particulates in wildfire smoke.
MacPherson says there are now also enough poles and equipment across B.C. to get crews rolling on repairs before additional materials can be shipped from elsewhere.

"We keep enough inventory to respond to trouble at each of our regional headquarters," he says. "Let's say a wildfire breaks out in Dawson Creek. We can use the 20 or 30 poles we have there, and if it takes a few days to use that material, it gives us a bit of a buffer and time to deploy more material up to site."

Behind the scenes, our procurement team acts proactively to secure supplies. And they know it pays to plan ahead. In 2023, wildfires across North America sparked a shortage of supplies for those respirator cartridges that have become a must-have item for crews.

"We've never had any extended outages because we ran out of materials," says MacPherson, now in his 35th year at BC Hydro. "And that's a testament to this team, the storekeepers, the purchasers and everybody else who does their job to make sure we're ready."

Last year our crews restored over 20,500 customers impacted by wildfires, replaced about 200 transmission structures, and more than 1,200 distribution poles. Much like last year, wildfire season began early this year, with multiple wildfires reported by mid-May.

With the changing climate, wildfire seasons will continue to be hotter and drier requiring an increasingly large response – and we're prepared.

Working closely with BC Wildfire Services

How do we respond to wildfires? That all depends on the hazards at play. And the safety of our crews, the public, and our customers always takes priority.

"We do as much as we can to prepare," says our emergency manager Tara Laycock, catching her breath after rains and snow slowed a series of May wildfires near Fort Nelson. "This year, we ramped up our efforts early. We kept in step with the province and the information coming at us, which suggested the possibility for an early start by the end of April. And we were more or less right on cue with that."

As of mid-May, we had lost about three dozen distribution power poles and a few transmission towers to fires around Fort Nelson in northern B.C. But Laycock says our first act was to de-energize power lines serving 99 customers to allow the BC Wildfire Service to safely fight the wildfire. It's that kind of coordination that's vital, as fires can move fast and conditions can change rapidly.

We work most closely with the BC Wildfire Service, and at Fort Nelson, we coordinated with the Northern Rockies Regional District, First Nations, and elected officials. Also in the mix was coordination with industry in the area, particularly in the oil and gas sector.

Since 2021, we've also used a valuable internal tool, called the Emergency Operations Dashboard, to layer wildfire location and emergency operations information over a B.C.-wide map of all our power lines, substations and other facilities. Laycock says the tool is adjusted seasonally to concentrate on current risks.

"Employees love it, and we use it every day," says Laycock. "We can map hazards and community evacuation notices against where our infrastructure is, and this allows us to assess our risks. It's so helpful. And this isn't just for fires. We also have information on earthquakes, tsunamis and water levels. And we map evacuation notices, so we sort of see ‘Alright, this is where our site is, this is where the fire is, this is where the evacuation notice alert area is.' It's so helpful."

Removing vegetation, protecting poles, part of our preparation

Vegetation on and near electrical rights-of-way is assessed and managed annually to reduce the build-up of potential fuel for fires, along with the potential for trees and branches to fall on power lines and cause an outage.

Fire retardant is sometimes applied to wooden power poles as a precautionary measure, and we're trialing new options to help prevent wildfire damage to transmission assets, including testing a pole wrap with fire retardant properties. The wraps are made of steel mesh with a coating that expands when exposed to high heat, forming a barrier that shields the pole from radiant heat and fire. This technology allows for water evaporation, minimizing the potential for pole decay. These pole wraps have been installed on our transmission circuit between Fort Nelson and the Alberta border.

How you can prepare for wildfire and other emergencies

Evacuation orders can happen quickly, so be prepared with your own household evacuation plan, and know the steps you should take – such as turning off all unnecessary appliances and removing food from the fridge – before you leave your home. Know that if you're forced to evacuate, we offer bill credit and payment plans for those who are evacuated.

When asked what her one message to British Columbians is, Tara Laycock delivers two.

"It'd be great if there were less human caused fires," she says, with a sigh. "And to be prepared for an emergency. Be fire smart, be fire safe."

In 2023, there were a record 2,293 wildfires across B.C., with a record 2.8 million hectares burned. In an average year in B.C., 42% of wildfires are human-caused and 58% are lightning-caused.

The BC FireSmart initiative is about ways you can protect your home from wildfires, from the plants you choose for your yard, to keeping the gutters and roof of your home free of debris.

The BC Wildfire Service site provides updates on active fires, fire bans and other restrictions, and details about wildfire prevention, preparedness and response.

We're asking customers to get prepared for a difficult wildfire season by doing the following:

  • Prepare a grab-and-go emergency kit and store it in an easy-to find, safe location.
  • Develop an emergency plan and share it with your family. Be sure that everyone knows what to expect and what to do.
  • Know where your electrical main power switch is. Label it and know how to shut if off safely should you have to leave your house during an emergency.
  • Make a list of local emergency contact numbers (fire, police, ambulance, etc.). Include 1-888-POWERON (1-888-769-3766) for reporting an outage.

Five ways you can help prevent wildfires

  • Always obey campfire bans. And when campfires are allowed, never leave a campfire unattended.
  • Never discard cigarettes/matches into vegetation, including bark mulch.
  • Be aware of fire activity in the area and observe all activity restrictions and campfire bans.
  • Create fuel-free or low-combustible zones around your house (for example, never store wood piles beside a building).
  • Report a wildfire, unattended campfire or open burning violation by calling  800 663-5555 toll-free or *5555 on a cellphone.


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