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Avista works to lessen wildfire danger, damage to its infrastructure

Fire danger sign
Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
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The utility files its annual wildfire postmortem report with Washington's utilities commission.

The 2022 wildfire season has nearly ended. In Washington, it was a relatively mild year with the numbers of fires and acres burned lower than in recent years.

David James, Avista’s wildfire resiliency manager, told the Utilities and Transportation Commission on Thursday that only four fires in eastern Washington and north Idaho damaged the utility’s infrastructure last summer, requiring it to replace poles or other equipment.

He says Avista is working to make that infrastructure less vulnerable to fire. In 2022, he says it has replaced more than 100 wooden poles with steel versions. It is also replacing wooden crossarms with fiberglas.

“Fiberglas crossarms are fantastic because they’re super tough, very difficult to break, and that’s why we initially started putting them up, to avoid broken crossarms. But we got this two-for because we’ve not had pole fires with fiberglas crossarms," he said.

Commission members asked James whether Avista's work focused exclusively on protecting the utility's assets and whether it was also lessening the fire danger around those assets.

James said the utility, for the first time, is inspecting its entire rural coverage area, to pinpoint spots most susceptible to wildfire, by the end of the year.

“We worked this year, both with Washington and Idaho fire agencies to remove fuels in high fire risk areas," he said.

James says the company has funded projects that removed trees and brush on about 90 acres of its land with plans to treat another 60 acres by the end of the year. He says it’s also working with individual landowners on fire prevention.

“We did this on a pilot. We contacted 600 property owners where we know that you have trees that we typically trim and then we asked them, ‘Would you be interested in removing those trees?’ he said. "We have 870 trees that we removed. Every tree that we remove off the system is just one less that might come in contact with a power line.”

Overall, James says the utility removed nearly 12,000 trees from its coverage area in 2022.