Missoula Electric to bury Rock Creek power line to mitigate risk of wildfire

A power line up the Rock Creek drainage east of Missoula poses a high risk of sparking a wildfire, and the nonprofit owner plans to mitigate any future hazards by burying the line.

Adriane Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services for Missoula County, said Missoula Electric Cooperative is seeking a federal mitigation grant to help fund the cost, and it’s asking the county to serve as a partner.

“It’s about a $1 million project to bury a section of power line that we’d consider a high hazard power line, just because of the steep terrain and the vegetation that’s around there,” Beck told Missoula County commissioners this week. “It does pose a significant wildfire risk and hazard.”

Missoula Electric Cooperative was founded in 1936 and remains a member-owned organization that provides power to members across six Montana counties and one county in Idaho. The cooperative delivers power to 13,000 members scattered across 2,000 miles.

The power line on the Lolo National Forest up Rock Creek has been a concern for years. Beck said the cooperative has worked to mitigate wildfire risks, but hasn’t been able to complete the project due the location’s rugged terrain.

“For the last four years, they’ve been working with the Lolo National Forest to get special permits to clear vegetation from underneath the line, and they did get permission to clear this particular section,” Beck said. “But throwing every resource they had at it, they were only able to get about a tenth of the work done that needs to be done.”

A pre-disaster mitigation grant from the federal government could help expedite the work by funding roughly 75% of the cost. The cooperative would have to provide a 25% match. Missoula County will serve as the grant’s applicant.

The power line would be buried under the right-of-way on Rock Creek Road, according to Beck.

“Most of the project is located in Missoula County, but it does checker in and out of Granite County,” Beck said. “Burying power lines is probably the most definitive form of mitigation.”

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.

Beck said the age of the utility in Rock Creek could also be an issue.

“They’re concerned that in any type of ice storm, or in a winter outage, they’d not be able to restore power to the homes and businesses in Rock Creek for about three months,” she said. “The age of the infrastructure is an issue.”

Erik Dickson, an engineer with Missoula County, said repairs to Rock Creek Road would follow any mitigation work.

“While we know Rock Creek road isn’t in great shape, trenching another line down the middle of it is going to add to that trouble,” Dickson said. “We’re going to work with them to see how we best accommodate their improvements on whichever sections are impacted.”