Sevier County Electric makes $8M investment in removing wildfire trees for more reliable service

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SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WATE) – Power crews are still working to repair damage from the Sevier County wildfires, more than three years later.

If you take a drive through some of the hardest-hit areas of the mountains, you can still find a great number of dead, scorched trees. Those trees, coupled with wind or rain, have been the root cause of reliability issues in that area, according to Sevier County Electric System General Manager Allen Robbins.

For the last three years, he’s seen little done to take down the hazardous “wildfire trees,” but he’s seen plenty of them fall on power lines.

SCES crews are wrapping up an $8 million effort to cut down 30,000 trees.

Their system serves the majority of Sevier County and nearly 57,000 customers. For maintenance, the system is divided into three sections and put on an annual rotation. 2019 marked the first year for a major repair effort in the wildfire area, since the initial event.

Typically, power crews are responsible for maintaining trees in their right-of-way. Their reliability issues, Robbins explained, are coming from trees on private property. He said there is a FEMA program that would have helped homeowners remove their own trees, called private property debris removal, but said it was such a complicated process, none of the wildfire trees were being addressed. Robbins also mentioned the public utility never received help from the federal government because they never met FEMA’s threshold.

The trees Robbins’ crews took down are left on the ground in segments, though he said he wishes they could do more.

“Being public power,” he said “we don’t have all the resources it would take to just remove the whole tree. So, we try our best to improve the reliability … then address trying to help the property owners in addressing these trees that are dying or dead.

“We have 2,237 miles of distribution line, only 60 miles of that distribution line was impacted by the wildfire.”

The initial cost was $5 million to rebuild the system. That included replacing 1,000 power poles, 125,000 feet of line, 450 transformers, removing trees, and of course, labor costs.

To put the damage and capital loss, Robbins pointed to the historic blizzard of 1993, which impacted their entire system. That only required replacing 146 poles.

The total price tag for those 60 miles of damage now sits at $16 million, including the initial investment, $3 million in revenue loss after the fires, and the recent $8 million tree-removal effort.

Despite these expenses over a three-year period, Robbins said he’s proud that rates for customers actually dropped last October. He credited their strong financial position to the efforts to maintain a strong rainy-day fund by previous managers, a growing number of customers in the system, and good rates from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Ultimately, Robbins and his crews hope their efforts lead to the lights staying on more consistently.

“We pride ourselves on keeping the power on,” Robbins said. “We’ve not been able to do as good a job as we’ve done in the past in those areas, because of this.”

Robbins said he does not have a timeline for when all of the trees, impacted by the wildfires, that pose a threat to their system’s reliability will be removed. He hopes to have a complete picture of the work required to accomplish that task by that area’s next cycle of maintenance in three years and expects many more will have to come down.

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