Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After more than a year of planning, a project aimed at reducing the risk of power lines sparking a fire in the Rock Creek drainage is set to move forward in partnership with Missoula Electric Cooperative this spring.

Adrian Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services for Missoula County, said the county and MEC signed an agreement 18 months ago to apply for a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant.

The grant has since been awarded and Phase 1 is set to begin.

“These grants are exceptionally competitive,” said Beck. “The project is to bury a section of overhead power lines in Rock Creek to prevent prolonged power outages and to reduce the threat of those power lines starting fires in that drainage.”

Power-line fires have emerged as top concern in states like California, where an estimated 19% of all acres burned over a four-year period were ignited by power lines.

The Dixie fire – the state's second largest fire at 1 million acres – was sparked by power lines, as was the state's deadly Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018 and was attributed to transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric.

Beck said the Rock Creek project looks to bury the drainage's power lines to mitigate the risk of fire.

“It's a complex project in that they have to do an under Rock Creek bore to actually bury the power lines,” said Beck. “They're doing that in conjunction with Blackfoot Communications, which has been working directly with the Forest Service to do a bore in the exact same location. Instead of boring twice, they're essentially going to share the trench.”

Beck said Phase 1 of the project – the Rock Creek bore – carries an estimated cost of $106,000. Funding from the federal grant will provide $71,000 while Missoula Electric Coop will provide a $34,000 match.

Beck added that Phase 2 will likely be awarded in the spring and will involved burying the power lines under the right-of-way along Rock Creek Road.