Three MP foresters join response to California’s Camp Fire

Dec 3, 2018

Three Minnesota Power foresters are in California helping Pacific Gas and Electric inspect and clear burned and dangerous trees from power line easements in the area affected by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Minnesota Power immediately offered to send the foresters after a Nov. 20 call for personnel by PG&E, the utility that serves the region. The team flew to California on Saturday, Nov. 24, and will work in the Camp Fire area for two weeks while staying at a base camp at the Paradise Airport.

“It’s pretty much total devastation in Paradise. Structures were burned flat to the ground, and trees are burned to the tops,” team member Jared said.

But the team said the damage also can be random, as in the July 2016 windstorm in Duluth. A street might have 10 homes flattened with one left untouched, or a motorcycle might still be parked next to a burned garage. There are still burned-out cars on some roads that they’ve needed to navigate around, too.

The Camp Fire, now totally contained after igniting Nov. 8, burned 153,000 acres and destroyed about 14,000 structures. As of Nov. 28, the fire’s death toll was 88, with 158 people still listed as missing.

One of the foresters described meeting a man with his dog, all he had left in the world, walking in Paradise and trying to find his home. The man cried as he described his plight. And the team has seen people combing through the rubble of their homes, coming away with only a handful of items to keep.

“It is certainly emotional for us,” said team member Matt.

As foresters, the team’s skills are being put to use inspecting trees and other vegetation along power line routes. Using specifications provided by PG&E, they are inspecting burned trees and marking them for removal, and also giving them a priority for removal based on the degree of fire damage and the clearance from power lines. This often is a critical first task after natural disasters, opening access for line crews to safely restore power.

They are working their way along distribution line easements in and near Paradise. They described their duties as standard forestry work, including using axes to check whether the cambium, an interior layer of the tree where secondary growth occurs, was damaged or burned. If the cambium is burned, trees can’t photosynthesize and need to be removed.

While Minnesota Power has a history of sending crews to areas affected by hurricanes and other storms, this is the first time the company has been asked to send assistance after a wildfire.

Part of the reason the three volunteered for the California mission was to gain experience in the power restoration process that could help the company in the event of a wildfire here. But their biggest motivation was a personal desire to help.

“We just marked the 100-year anniversary of our 1918 fire in Minnesota,” Jared said. That fire killed 453 people and burned from Moose Lake to Duluth in October of that year.

“We didn’t experience the 1918 fire, but we did want to help out here,” he said.

PG&E requested more than 1,200 lineworkers, 700 vegetation workers and 133 vegetation inspectors from other utilities.

“We’re honored to help the people of northern California recover from this devastating fire through a unique response for Minnesota Power,” said Brad Oachs, senior vice president of ALLETE and president of regulated operations. “We’re happy to share our foresters’ expertise, and they will learn about how utilities respond after a wildfire, knowledge they can add to our company’s emergency response experience. While we help PG&E and its customers, we’re also gaining knowledge that will help our employees and customers in the event of a wildfire.”

Minnesota Power always strives to help other energy companies when they need assistance after natural disasters and other events. Minnesota Power crews have joined hurricane responses six times in the past 13 years, traveling to Florida in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, Ohio in 2008 after Hurricane Ike, Maryland in 2011 after Hurricane Irene, Maryland and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Florida in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, and Puerto Rico from late 2017 into early 2018 after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.