The heavy snowfall and rains that covered the western part of the country will likely reduce the threat of wildfire season this summer, but El Niño could change the wildfire outlook for fall. The climate trend of increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires has government agencies, researchers, and enterprise weather companies, often in collaboration with utilities, investing in new technology and tools to help prevent and mitigate wildfire risks.
Black Hills Energy is one utility leading the way investing in new technology and tools. It used to be that utility reliability managers, like Denton McGregor, could plan wildfire responses for the traditional four-month fire season from late summer and fall. Today high-alert wildfire season now stretches into year-round fire risk awareness and mitigation activities for most U.S. utilities
According to McGregor, some of the biggest fires in the utility’s service areas recently occurred during the middle of winter. “It brought to light that we need to be ready to take fire mitigation and action any time of the year which wasn’t as concerning 30 years ago,” he noted.
Diverse Geography Presents Different Risks for Utilities
Most utilities have assets and infrastructure spanning diverse geographies and topography exposing them to potentially different weather risks at the same point in time. This is the challenge for Black Hills Energy, as the utility has service regions in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota that include grasslands, forest, and mountainous terrain. At any given time, one area may be more susceptible to drought and high winds, while the mountainous regions have a higher threat from dense vegetation. According to McGregor, their incident control center would rely on system operators to become “ad hoc meteorologists” on a localized level to assess risk and weather threat for the specific territory. What they needed was a notification system that could send one source of truth for weather and critical burn information that correlated with the risk in each of the areas within the service territories.
Black Hills Energy worked with DTN to tailor an Energy Event Index to help reliably assemble and digitally deliver five-day ahead wildfire risk profiles for the company’s service area and improve risk communication among system operators.
Black Hills Energy classified predetermined regions based on terrain type and fire weather zones to create a burn index. We aligned delivery of real-time fire weather data and fire weather forecasts, as well as the meteorological data modeling that paired with the Black Hills Energy risk thresholds and service area to create a comprehensive risk forecast of the service areas during fire season.
“A valuable component of the Energy Event Index is that the risk can scale up or down based on the combination of meteorological and fire weather data, meaning that we are always receiving the most up-date information in a dynamic decision-making process,” noted McGregor. He goes on to share that with a single source of reliable information and established risk triggers it has been easier to declare an incident command event and initiate emergency protocols to engage and optimize resources.
Tailored Risk Planning Index Provides Additional Insights
Black Hills Energy also added an additional layer of observation for each circuit and monitor the highest risk circuits and lines using the threshold triggers for the burn index. The transmission and distribution control center can then review and initiate fire risk mitigation activities for the high-risk circuits based on the risk forecast.
The utility has added additional data points to the risk-planning index to further improve wildfire mitigation. Black Hills Energy is evaluating additional variables such as circuit risk, vegetation in the area, the response time for fire trucks, population, and topography.
“Historically, a utility was blind to the actual wildfire risk on any given day. Now we are taking our insights and decision-making a bit further,” said McGregor. “It has really helped mature our overall wildfire posturing across the entire utility.”
Using AI to Predict Fire Growth Probability
The technology for fighting wildfire continues to grow, and DTN is now testing a probability model using artificial intelligence based on an ensemble of data sets and models, to objectively guide operational wildfire mitigation plans for wildfires that couldn’t be easily contained or abated. With advance notifications, utilities and municipalities could plan implement escalated protocols for safety and wildfire mitigation, potentially reducing or alleviating the risk that a wildfire would ignite. The promising results of innovation, computing power and AI may give us the advanced warning and accurate predictions needed to take preventive measures well before the spark ignites.
Learn more about how DTN can help mitigate wildfire risk.