In a nutshell…

  • There is an increased emphasis on the liability of infrastructure owners to prevent the ignition of wildfires.
  • Utility regulators are implementing programs to govern and incentivize reduction of wildfire ignition risks.
  • New technology is rapidly being developed to assist infrastructure owners to reduce asset failure and prevent wildfire ignition.

“The heating of our planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” decried a recent UN Environment Program report on wildfires.1 The report paints a challenging picture. Fire seasons have grown in length by 27 percent since 1979. And the number of extreme fire weather days has increased by 54 percent in the same period.2 The UN report estimates the chances of big, catastrophic fires increasing by a third over the next 30 years.

For the US State of California and the Australian State of Victoria, the forecast is concerning. Both regions have suffered from wildfires for centuries. Hot, dry climates; dense vegetation; and strong winds make these geographies particularly prone to wild and bush fires.

For these geographies and others, it is critical that the environment, community and businesses are protected from the growing risks of wildfires. At the same time, many infrastructure owners are taking increased responsibility for ensuring such fires don't start in the first place. One sector experiencing this shift is the Electricity industry.

California's infamous Camp Fire in 2018, which killed 85 people and caused more than US$16 billion in damages, was caused by a faulty piece of equipment on an electric transmission line.3 The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people in 2019; an incorrectly rigged mains power cable caused the central fire.4

Both fires became the subject of intense review that resulted in significant changes to the perceived accountability of infrastructure owners and led to the implementation of significant programs to reduce the likelihood of wildfire ignition.

Regulators, governments and utilities respond

Not surprisingly, several agencies - with California and Victoria at the vanguard - are now working with their power utilities to manage the risks better. In Victoria, the Powerline Bushfire Safety Program (PBSP) was established in 2011 to drive the adoption of bushfire safety technologies across the State's distribution network. Recent estimates suggest PBSP initiatives will reduce state-wide powerline-ignited bushfire risk by up to 48 percent in 2023.5

In California, the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety (OEIS) is charged with taking practical actions to reduce utility-related wildfire risks. That includes requiring utilities to submit annual Wildfire Mitigation Plans (WMPs), as well as periodic reviews of their safety cultures, safety certifications and - pointedly - executive compensation structures. The OEIS's job is to review and approve or deny utilities' WMPs, effectively giving the regulator control over what safety investments the utilities prioritize.

California and Victoria are certainly not alone in their quest to find innovative ways to reduce powerline-ignited fire risks. Indeed, many technical and regulatory initiatives are underway worldwide, each of which provides valuable lessons for those hoping to catalyze positive change through regulation.

Getting more technical

What is clear is that demand for better asset management to reduce wildfire ignition risk is accelerating the development of new technologies and management practices.

Exciting preventative technologies can detect risks before they cause a problem. For example, Early Fault Detection is a new technology that can detect imminent failures in conductors by detecting anomalies in powerline ratio frequencies. Mitigative technologies that reduce the likelihood of igniting a bush or wildfire if a fault does occur have also been developed. Falling Conductor Protection (FCP) technology uses patterns of change in the voltage measurement to detect a falling conductor in milliseconds, allowing the powerline to be isolated before the conductor hits the ground.

Improvements have also been made in operational practices and analytics. These initiatives tend to go beyond standard procedures such as field inspections, non-invasive pole testing and aerial inspections to integrate a wide range of other localized weather and fire risk modeling. They also focus on improving the management of wildfire ignition risks by enhancing organizational capability (versus direct interventions into electrical faults or failures). In California, for example, utilities implement Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events where localized weather data and wildfire risk assessments identify high-risk areas that utilities de-energize during the peak of wildfire season and strong wind events.

Driven by extreme weather events and more distributed energy generation, utilities are also changing the configuration of their network to allow a higher level of monitoring and operational management. Many governments, for example, are looking at how they can encourage the introduction of alternate network architectures like Stand Alone Power Systems (SAPS) through appropriate market structures and regulatory incentives.

More Opportunity

The response from regulators, governments, utilities and technology companies worldwide has made a tangible reduction in asset-initiated wildfires. However, all agencies acknowledge more can be done.

These improvements are likely to come from higher-resolution data that allows asset owners to better manage wildfire risks. A unified framework that lets asset owners quantify the cost benefit from reducing wildfire ignition risks could improve regulation and allow asset owners to better invest in new technology while providing an affordable service to their communities.

Why stop at wildfires?

With some wildfire and bushfire regulatory programs showing success, regulators and policymakers are asking if the same approach could be used for other weather-related risks like high wind and floods. The answer is yes!

In some locations, there is growing scrutiny of infrastructure owner's accountability on community impacts from wind, flood and other extreme weather events. For example, in 2011, water released from Wivenhoe Dam in Australia contributed to a destructive flood which triggered a review into the dam's operations.

With the increased availability of climate impact data, asset owners are able to assess the potential impacts on their assets and how they may mitigate impacts on the community and environment. Around the world, many regulators and policymakers recognize they need to exert influence over the parts of the climate agenda they control.

Citizens are concerned about the frequency and unpredictability of climate-related events. It won't be long before regulators expand their view to include other risks - and their efforts to manage wildfires and bushfires will likely set the example.

Lesson learned

There is an increasing expectation for infrastructure owners to respond to our changing climate and reduce the potential impacts of climate related events. There are tools to help governments and regulators encourage a proactive response to these emerging challenges. Efforts in places like Victoria and California to reduce the risk of wildfires and bushfires prove it.

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1 Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, UN Environment Programme, 23 February 2022  
Jones, M. W., Abatzoglou, J. T., Veraverbeke, S., Andela, N., Lasslop, G., Forkel, M., et al. (2022). Global and regional trends and drivers of fire under climate change. Reviews of Geophysics, 60, e2020RG000726.
4 Final Report, 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, July 2010