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Power lines at risk from Lolo Creek Complex

By Matt Gray, Meteorologist/Reporter, mgray@keci.com
Published On: Aug 26 2013 07:02:23 PM MDT
Updated On: Aug 26 2013 08:32:03 PM MDT
BPA power line north of Lolo Creek Complex
LOLO, Mont. -

One of the main Bonneville Power Administration lines in Montana is dangerously close to the fire lines. The 500 Kilovolt power line regularly supplies around 450 Megawatts of power; mainly to the Spokane and Seattle areas.

Today the line is only 1.5 miles from the active northern edge of the Lolo Creek Complex fire, which has burned close to 10,900 acres and south of the Blue Mountain lookout.

NBC Montana went to Lolo today to learn what fire crews were doing to protect the power line. Crews were sent up today to scout the area between the power line and the fire line. They conducted burnout operations and fuel treatement along roadways to slow the fire down if it begins to spread northward.

Roads on the south face of Blue Mountain are scarce and the terrain is rugged. Developing contingencies for fire growth is a challenge because of this.

According to fire managers, fires pose multiple hazards when they are near power lines. Heat from the flames can cause a power surge in the line, which then knocks it off the grid. Smoke is also dangerous. Smoke passing over the lines can cause electricity to arc between them, leaving a ball of fire that falls to the ground and can start a fire underneath the lines.

We spoke to BPA officials for their perspective, and they said power can be rerouted almost instantaneously should they be forced to shut down the line. High capacity lines like the one over Blue Mountain can supply double the 450 Megawatts that they regularly transport. The power grid can handle the extra strain if the line goes down. It's one of many contingencies BPA has planned for.

Currently, officials on both fronts are waiting to see what the fire will do. Should the line become threatened, a BPA employee will be embedded with the firefighters to assist them around the dangerous wires, and the contingencies being planned for today will go into motion.