Less environmental damage, faster repair, lower cost
By Ann McCreary
When the Twisp River Fire burned power poles and brought down lines Aug. 19, the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) had to work quickly to come up with a plan to fix the extensive damage.
About 3 miles of line was destroyed. Much of it ran across Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) land, on hills and benches in the Big Buck wildlife unit between Highway 20 and Elbow Coulee Road. The fire left about 200 residents of Twisp River Road beyond Elbow Coulee without power.
The original line was built in the 1940s as part of the effort to bring electricity to a rural part of the valley, said David Gottula, OCEC general manager. The line was rebuilt in the 1970s.
Replacing the approximately 80 burned poles along the original route would have required creating miles of temporary roads up steep terrain to carry poles and equipment across the wildlife land, causing additional environmental impacts to the already damaged landscape.
In the past, OCEC has used draft horses to haul in poles on WDFW land to minimize environmental damage when repairs to the line are needed. Given the extensive damage to the system, OCEC decided the line needed to be rerouted.
“While new roads were built in the wildlife area during this rebuild, the new route minimized the amount needed,” Gottula said.
“Changing the route was primarily balancing environmental considerations, costs and operational considerations,” he said. In addition to reducing the impacts on the land, the new line helped get the repairs done in less time because the route is shorter and moves some co-op members to the main power line, which enhances operations, Gottula said.
OCEC technician Deanna Melton drafted the plan to reroute the line, with approval from Gottula, who is an electrical engineer. Within a couple of days, OCEC presented it to WDFW for approval, and the agency expedited permits over the weekend of Aug. 22 and 23 so that the co-op could begin work.
The old route carried the line from the Hoot ’n’ Holler development off Highway 20 toward Frost Lake, then west across WDFW land to Elbow Coulee, and then up Twisp River Road. The new route carries the line roughly south from Frost Lake toward Twisp River Road, reducing the amount of WDFW land it crosses.
At Twisp River Road, OCEC buried about 2,000 feet of line along the south side of the road east of Elbow Coulee. That stretch of road has cliffs, trees and wetlands that made an underground line a better option, Gottula said.
Crews started at either end of the damaged line and worked toward each other to repair the damage. A line crew from Inland Power and Light out of Spokane assisted OCEC crews, along with several local contractors.
OCEC will partner with the Methow Conservancy and, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and WDFW, will re-seed the damaged land this fall, Gottula said.
Most residents of Twisp River Road got power back Aug. 27, about eight days after the fire.