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Oct. 29, 2020

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Clark Public Utilities tests helicopter inspections

Program aims to improve vegetation management in remote areas

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Clark Public Utilities staff ride in a helicopter to inspect vegetation around a transmission line in northwestern Camas. The utility provider is hoping that adding helicopter and drone flights will allow it to be more proactive in monitoring vegetation and making sure its power lines stay clear.
Clark Public Utilities staff ride in a helicopter to inspect vegetation around a transmission line in northwestern Camas. The utility provider is hoping that adding helicopter and drone flights will allow it to be more proactive in monitoring vegetation and making sure its power lines stay clear. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

This summer’s record-breaking spate of West Coast wildfires has put a renewed focus on the risks of high-voltage transmission lines in remote areas and the role that utility companies play in securing those lines to avoid any flash points.

There haven’t been any local cases of wildfires sparked by power lines, an achievement which Clark Public Utilities attributes in part to its robust vegetation management practices. But the issue serves as a reminder to stay vigilant, and the local utility provider is preparing to start testing out some new tools to help keep its lines clear.

The first new idea got a test run last week: helicopter line inspections. Clark Public Utilities staff rode along for a helicopter flight that followed the path of one of the local transmission lines that runs along the western edge of Camas.

Flying low along the length of the line, crews were able to inspect both the line itself and the surrounding vegetation.

Any vegetation hot spots will be flagged for a team to clear later. The goal of the helicopter pilot program is to see if the crews can be more precise and proactive about how they handle vegetation management in the remote areas, according to Clark Public Utilities media specialist Dameon Pesanti.

The utility company’s trimming program operates on a 3-year, $3.3 million cycle, and that’s enough to keep the lines clear, Pesanti said, but some areas tend to need more attention because the surrounding plant life grows faster — and those areas can also be more time-consuming to scout on foot.

“This line is heavily vegetated, and it’s also very marshy here,” he said, referring to a segment of the line that passes along the undeveloped east side of the WaferTech campus in Camas.

The flight took off from Portland International Airport at about 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon and followed a roughly 1-hour, 15-mile flight path that included inspections of lines at Lady Island to the south of Camas and the line near WaferTech.

Helicopter inspections and even helicopter-based trimming are commonplace for some utility providers, but Thursday’s flight was a first for Clark Public Utilities. The utility provider has used helicopters to deliver equipment at remote sites, Pesanti said, but not for inspections. If it works out, more flights will follow.

“We’re in the information-gathering phase of the process,” Pesanti said.

The test run has been in the works for more than a year, Pesanti said, and would’ve taken place at the start of the summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the operation. He said this year’s wildfire season made clear the need to be as proactive as possible about vegetation management.

Later this year, the utility provider also plans to begin a second pilot program that will scout the rural lines using a drone equipped with LiDAR, which uses lasers to map spaces in 3D.

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