Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Difficult terrain and the persistent threat of wildfire in the Rock Creek drainage will prompt Missoula Electric Cooperative to relocate its power lines and bury them under the roadway.

The project, estimated at around $1 million, is set to begin this spring and, when finished, it will mitigate the potential risk of fires sparked by downed power lines.

“Wildfire mitigation is one of the greatest risks to our cooperative and our community,” said Mark Hayden with Missoula Electric. “The Rock Creek project is high on my list. These power lines cross steep mountains and are very inaccessible.”

Power lines have sparked a number of large wildfires in recent years, including those owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, whose faulty power lines have been blamed for the deadly fires in Paradise, California.

The power line on the Lolo National Forest up Rock Creek also has been a concern. While the cooperative has worked to mitigate wildfire risks, it hasn't been able to complete the project due to the location's rugged terrain.

“It'll bury three miles and bring that power line off the mountain,” said Hayden. “It's incredibly difficult construction. It's called Rock Creek for a reason.”

While the project's cost has been difficult to overcome, a federal grant from the Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities (BRIC) will fund most of the work. Missoula County helped apply for the mitigation grant four years ago.

The grant meets a number of local priorities, said Adrian Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services at Missoula County. Among them, the funding helps harden local infrastructure in the face of a changing climate, and also looks to mitigate future disasters.

“We're taking the existing hazard of red power lines in an area where its extremely high for wildfire risk, but also where it's really hard to maintain those lines,” said Beck. “Whether it's a winter storm or windstorm or a wildfire event, ensuring we have reliable power in that corridor is part of this leverage.”

The project will take place in two phases, the first in partnership with Blackfoot Communication. The telecom company received emergency approval from the Federal Emergency Management Association to bore under Rock Creek to lay new conduit.

Instead of disturbing the waterway twice, Missoula Electric will piggyback off Blackfoot's project and bury its lines under the creek.

There may be restrictions from times when we can do construction because of bull trout and other concerns. But our hope is to have the job done by summer or by fall,” said Hayden. “Those folks who live up Rock Creek don't need extended outages right in the middle of winter waiting for a helicopter pull when we need to repair the lines.”

Hayden said Missoula Electric has applied for funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to complete similar projects elsewhere in the county.

“We've got close to 40 miles of power lines to bury in the Seeley-Swan Valley,” he said. “Another wildfire mitigation project will convert our hydraulic (system) with electronics so they can be controlled from our office with a weather monitoring system so we can see these Red Flag events before they arrive to reduce wildfire dangers.”