What do wildland fires have to do with utility and pipeline damage prevention?
More than you might imagine!
It’s been six years since Texas suffered its worst wildland fire season in recorded history. More than four million acres burned, destroying almost 3,000 homes and resulting in six deaths. We learned a lot about the impact of wildland fires on utilities and pipelines that year, a topic that hadn’t previously crossed our minds at Texas811.
Bulldozers and motor graders inadvertently damaged pipelines and other surface
and subsurface infrastructure while cutting firebreaks ahead of the wildland fires. Even when equipment operators are familiar with 811, rarely does it cross their minds to call 811 under those circumstances. They are operating under emergency conditions and it’s not as if a locator could be expected to get out a head of the fire to put marks on the ground anyway. The outreach that Texas811 and the Damage Prevention Councils of Texas developed goes beyond the traditional concept of 811. If the responding agencies notify 811 of the approximate location and projected direction of travel upon their initial response, a broad area notification can be sent out with instructions for the facility operators to contact a designated liaison within the incident command system. Physical locates are not requested, but if the operators determine a potential impact to their facilities, they can provide information on what the emergency responders can expect. For example, if a transmission pipeline traverses the area ahead of a fire, the pipeline operator can directly communicate with the Incident Commander, providing latitude/longitude coordinates and instruction to the equipment operators on identifying the presence of the pipeline. In the oil patch, gathering lines of all sizes and associated system appurtenances are routinely encountered at shallow depth or even laying on top of the ground. A predictable hazard, equipment operators can be warned how best to protect themselves in the event of a product release. Traditional pipeline rupture safety instruction of “abandon the equipment in place” doesn’t work in a wildland fire as the heavy equipment is the operator’s ticket out of harm’s way. And finally,
the facility operators have advance warning that their system is subject to potential outage so they can take steps to prepare for impact, which is especially important for rural electric and telecommunications providers.
Restoration of service after a wildland fire frequently involves emergency excavation to replace damaged utility poles and other surface infrastructure. With damage prevention council support, contract locators and pipeline and utility operators can coordinate their response efforts to make the most efficient use of available time and resources as utility poles and other surface infrastructure are
replaced on an emergency basis.
Landowner outreach is critical after a fire. Miles of fence lines damaged or destroyed in the fire have to be replaced and in some cases, livestock has to be buried. Damage prevention communications and public service announcements have been developed for distribution through the forest service and agricultural agencies on how to utilize 811 during restoration efforts. A result of this effort is the “After the Fire, Call 811” PSA developed for distribution at post-fire town hall meetings to heighten landowner awareness. (Check out the PSA at pcoftexas.com/additional-information/helpful-documents.)
Damage prevention initiatives associated with wildland fire response and recovery are just one example of how Texas811 and the Damage Prevention Councils of Texas routinely identify opportunities for improvement and serve as the information hub for the various stakeholders to achieve solutions to common, and uncommon, problems.
Doug Meeks is Texas811’s Damage Prevention Manager. For additional information about developing a wildland fire notification process, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.