Technology may detect some power line faults before they ignite wildfires

A new system being tested seeks to provide continuous situational awareness of the condition of each circuit

Vegetation power line cause faults fires electrically
Vegetation can cause faults and fires electrically. Distribution Fault Anticipation can detect this type of vegetation fault before the dangerous situation escalates. (Texas A&M Engineering)

Technology recently developed can shut off the power to a broken overhead electrical line before it hits the ground, possibly avoiding the ignition of a disastrous wildfire. But not all of the numerous large fires started by power lines in California were caused by broken conductors. Often they originate from failing hardware, two wires blown by the wind briefly touching, or a tree limb coming in contact with a line. These situations do not always start a fire when they first occur, but over time can become more serious problems.

A team of Texas A&M researchers has developed a new technology that helps electrical providers find the cause of outages, and anticipate and predict some failures before outages occur. A few utility companies in Texas started using it a few years ago and tests in California by PG&E and Southern California Edison have just begun.

From Texas A&M:


When your power goes out, you probably assume that your utility provider has a monitoring system quickly telling them exactly where the problem is. After all, this is the era of smart technology and big data.

But the electric grid wasn’t designed or built in this era. Utility companies may know if there is an outage, but they likely don’t know exactly where or what the problem is until crews inspect it and find the problem. Utility providers are essentially blind to developing problems in the grid other than whether the power is on or off.

Not only is their ability to assess a current outage limited, they also have no way of identifying a problem that may not actually be causing an outage or anticipating where a problem may occur in the future. For example, a failing device could be sparking, creating a dangerous situation that nobody is aware of for days or weeks before it completely fails and causes an outage.

But, not anymore.

Applying concepts of pattern recognition and advanced signal processing to more than a decade of data, a team of Texas A&M University researchers has developed a new technology called Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA).  It has the capability to not only help utility providers find the cause of outages, but to also anticipate and predict some failures before outages occur. (Their published research, Application of DFA Technology for Improved Reliability and Operations, was presented at the 2017 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Rural Electric Power Conference in Columbus, Ohio.)

“Power distribution system electrical signals include specific failure signatures, which tell a story — for instance whether potential faults and outages are about to occur,” said Dr. B. Don Russell, a power engineer and the Engineering Research Chair Professor and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M.

An entirely new technology
Simply put, they’ve been ‘listening’ to the electric grid for more than a decade to analyze signals and identify which ones indicate a potential problem. Conceptually, it is not much different from an auto mechanic who can hear a problem in an old engine and know exactly what is causing it. Practically, however, this is an entirely new technology.

“A practical benefit of using DFA is the ability to detect and repair arcing and misoperating devices that often cause wildfires. In a four-year study just completed at Texas A&M, it has been proven that many fires can be prevented with this technology,” Russell said.

The Texas A&M research team led by Russell includes Carl Benner, Jeff Wischkaemper and Karthick Manivannan. Their research, sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute, developed the DFA technology. It is an autonomous, distributed computing system that provides electric utility operators a continuous situational awareness of the condition of each circuit. The result is increased reliability of their network and reduced outages. It enables the utility operator to predict adverse power line conditions and events generally not detected by conventional technologies.

“DFA recognizes the impending failure mechanisms of most distribution hardware, often allowing operators to find and fix failing devices before catastrophic failure,” said Russell. “The devices report line events to a master station server, which provides access to reports from a fleet of DFA devices on circuits across the power system.”

An obvious example of the benefits from this technology is wildfire prevention. High winds can cause electric lines to contact, causing arcing on the line and damaging it, but not causing a complete outage. The sparks from these faults have been known to start wildfires, especially during dry conditions and often without the knowledge of utility personnel. Repeated contact can burn the line down. DFA has also helped utilities detect and locate tree branches making contact with power lines and causing faults, which can start fires directly or break a line and cause it to fall to the ground.

An example of this situation was the devastating fire of 2011 in Bastrop, Texas, where a true worst-case scenario unfolded when high winds and severe drought conditions caused the most damaging wildfire in Texas history. Many wildfires in the western United States last year were also linked to electric faults.

Russell explained that awareness of adverse events and conditions, even before they cause a failure, enables utility companies to take preventive action by performing repairs or condition-based maintenance. The DFA technology is a result of more than 15 years of continuous research collaboration, resulting in the only system of its kind.

“A practical benefit of using DFA is the ability to detect and repair arcing and misoperating devices that often cause wildfires,” said Russell. “In a four-year study just completed at Texas A&M, it has been proven that many fires can be prevented with this technology. Whether preventing wildfires or dangerous power lines on the ground, DFA is the new tool that improves reliability and safety.”

Industry tested
This technology is not just lab tested, it is field proven as well.

Robert Peterson, director of control center and emergency preparedness at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the nation’s largest distribution electric cooperative, said DFA has been invaluable in providing information that is not available any other way.

“DFA has enabled us to identify potential issues like trees on lines, failing clamps, failing arrestors, etc. and resolve those issues before they create power interruptions,” he said. “In one case, we were able to pinpoint the location of a branch on an overhead line that could have become an ignition source for wildfire in a rural subdivision. We have also used the monitors to provide information allowing us to proactively address issues with capacitor switches in order to keep our power factor within regulatory prescribed limits. Overall, the technology has proven itself to the extent that our plans now include expanding their use to the rest of our distribution system.”

Dr. Comfort Manyame, senior manager of research and technical strategy, and Robert Taylor, engineering specialist, at Mid-South Synergy were also complimentary of the technology. Taylor said, “It makes me wonder what we did before DFA,” while Manyame said they are hoping to expand their use of DFA in the coming years.

“DFA has so far been the single most important operational technology we have implemented which has given us wins in the shortest amount of time,” Manyame said. “We want to multiply our DFA benefits and improve our overall system reliability and resilience by expanding our installation, possibly to our whole system, in the next few years.”

Thomas Ellis, manager of engineering at Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, said that their control center operators have used DFA information to accurately determine the cause and location of multiple faults, including a fault that affected just one single customer on a stretch of circuit with more than 160 miles of overhead line.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to MrCAPT1409. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Texas Forest Service employe earns prestigious Bronze Smokey Bear Award

Bronze Smokey Bear Award
Texas A&M Forest Service Wildland Urban Interface Specialist Samuel McCalip, a self-taught videographer, was honored with the prestigious Bronze Smokey Bear Award by the US Forest Service September 27, 2019.

A Texas A&M Forest Service employee was honored with the prestigious Bronze Smokey Bear Award during today’s National Association of State Foresters Annual Meeting in Asheville, North Carolina.

Wildland Urban Interface Specialist Samuel McCalip, a self-taught videographer, has harnessed the power of storytelling to bring wildfire prevention awareness across the state.

“As a forester, wildland firefighter, public information officer and prevention team member, Samuel has combined his love of forestry and ecosystems, desire to protect natural resources and skill for educating the public,” said Texas A&M Forest Service Program Leader Karen Stafford. “In a matter of months, McCalip taught himself how to produce high-quality videos to help reach the citizens of Texas.”

Texas A&M Forest Service first utilized McCalip’s videos to increase awareness of wildfire prevention practices when wildfires burned in the Panhandle in 2017.

The following year, McCalip’s video “Dragging Chains,” a PSA meant to educate the public about the risk of causing sparks when dragging chains from a vehicle, was the foundation of the “Do Your Part, Don’t Let a Wildfire Start” series.

“Samuel has taken his skills behind the camera and his passion for prevention and mitigation and combined them into a very unique and effective tool for spreading Smokey’s prevention message,” Texas State Forester Tom Boggus said. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”

Since then, McCalip has produced several informational, educational and promotional videos for the agency and hosted multiple video production training sessions for other Texas A&M Forest Service departments to build the agency’s capacity.

“Samuel’s creativity and innovation has sparked those around him to come up with ideas to improve effectiveness and efficiency in delivering core agency messaging,” Stafford said. “He’s turned his passion for wildfire prevention into art.”

Across the nation, only 10 recipients are presented the Bronze Smokey Bear Award each year.

Visit https://bit.ly/2mGIqpE to watch McCalip’s latest video about Texas A&M Forest Service’s Texas Ranch Wildfire Program.

Visit https://bit.ly/2ndyPHv to watch McCalip’s “Dragging Chains” video.


From Texas A&M Forest Service

Report released for a firefighter fatality in Texas

Occurred on a wildfire in March, 2018

Texas LODD firefighter 2018 map
The initial firefighting operations with Grass 5-1 and Grass 5-2. The green
arrows indicate the direction of travel for the brush trucks. The red arrow is the
direction the fire is traveling. The time is approximately 1124 hours. (NIOSH)

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has released a report about a 68-year old firefighter that died from burn injuries while fighting a grass fire in Texas last year.

“Firefighter A” was one of three firefighters on a Brush Truck, Grass 5-1, that was initial attacking a grass fire on March 10, 2018 that was burning in two to three foot high Little Bluestem grass. He was riding on an open side step behind the cab when he fell off and was overrun by the fire. The firefighter was flown to a burn center but passed away March 23, 2018.

Below is an excerpt from the report:


“Grass 5-1 began attacking the fire from the burned “black” area. Grass 5-1 was attempting to extinguish the fire in the tree line and fence line while moving north. A bulldozer was operating north of Grass 5-1. A citizen was operating a private bulldozer independent of the fire department operations. The bulldozer was attempting to cut a fire break in the very northern part of the property ahead of the fire.

“Grass 5-2 arrived on scene at 1121 hours. Another fire fighter from Fire Station 5 had responded in his POV to the scene. He got in the cab of Grass 5-2 at the tank dam. Grass 5-2 went east in the field towards the fence line. The grass fire was near the POV owned by Fire Fighter “B” on Grass 5-1. Grass 5-2 extinguished the fire around the POV and moved north towards Grass 5-1.

“Grass 5-1 reached the head of the fire and lost sight of the bulldozer. The driver/operator of Grass 5-1 attempted to turn around and the wind shifted, causing the smoke to obscure his vision. The driver/operator inadvertently turned into the unburned grass. The driver/operator described the grass as two to three feet tall. The time was approximately 1124 hours.

“The wind shift caused the fire to head directly toward Grass 5-1. Grass 5-1 Fire Fighter “B” advised the driver/operator to stop because they were dragging the “red line” (booster line). Fire Fighter “A” and Fire Fighter “B” exited the vehicle to retrieve the hoseline. The driver/operator told them to “forget the line” and get back in the truck. Fire Fighter “B” entered the right side (passenger) side step and Fire Fighter “A” got back on Grass 5-1 on the side step behind the driver. Fire Fighter “A” had a portion of the red line over his shoulder. When the driver accelerated to exit the area, Fire Fighter “A” was pulled from the apparatus by the red line that remained on the ground due to the gate not being properly latched. Fire Fighter “B” started pounding on the cab of Grass 5-1 to get the driver/operator to stop the apparatus. Grass 5-1 traveled approximately 35 – 45 feet before the driver/operator stopped the apparatus. The time was approximately 1127 hours.

“When Fire Fighter “A” fell off of Grass 5-1, he fell into a hole about 6 – 12 inches deep and was overrun by the fire. The driver/operator and Fire Fighter “B” found Fire Fighter “A” in the fire and suffering from burns to his face, arms and hands, chest, and legs. They helped Fire Fighter “A” into the cab of Grass 5-1 with assistance from the two fire fighters on Grass 5-2. The driver/operator of Grass 5-1 advised the County Dispatch Center of a “man down”. Once Fire Fighter “A” was in the cab of Grass 5-1, the driver/operator drove Grass 5-1 to the command post, which was located near Tanker 5. Fire Fighter “B” was riding the right step position behind the cab of Grass 5-1. The time was approximately 1129 hours. At 1131 hours, the County Dispatch Center dispatched a county medic unit (Medic 2) to the scene for an injured fire fighter.”


Texas LODD firefighter 2018 side step
The side step position on Grass 5-1 showing the gate latching
mechanism and the short hoselines on each sided of the apparatus
(NIOSH Photo.)

Instead of wearing the fire resistant brush gear or turnout gear he had been issued, Firefighter A was wearing jeans, a tee shirt, and tennis shoes.

Contributing factors and key recommendations from the report:

Contributing Factors

  • Lack of personal protective equipment
  • Apparatus design
  • Lack of scene size-up
  • Lack of situational awareness
  • Lack of training for grass/brush fires
  • Lack of safety zone and escape route
  • Radio communications issues due to incident location

Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments should ensure fire fighters who engage in wildland firefighting wear personal protective equipment that meets NFPA 1977, Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Firefighting
  • Fire departments should comply with the requirements of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program for members riding on fire apparatus

The report referred to an August 17, 2017 tentative interim amendment to NFPA 1906, Standard for Wildland Fire Apparatus, 2016 edition with an effective date of September 4, 2017.

“NFPA 1906 Paragraph 14.1.1 now reads, “Each crew riding position shall be within a fully enclosed personnel area.”

“A.14.1.1 states, “Typically, while engaged in firefighting operations on structural fires, apparatus are positioned in a safe location, and hose is extended as necessary to discharge water or suppressants on the combustible material.” In wildland fire suppression, mobile attack is often utilized in addition to stationary pumping. In mobile attack, sometimes referred to as “pump-and-roll,” water is discharged from the apparatus while the vehicle is in motion. Pump-and-roll operations are inherently more dangerous than stationary pumping because the apparatus and personnel are in close proximity to the fire combined with the additional exposure to hazards caused by a vehicle in motion, often on uneven ground. The personnel and/or apparatus could thus be more easily subject to injury or damage due to accidental impact, rollover, and/or environmental hazards, including burn over.

“To potentially mitigate against the increased risk inherent with pump-and-roll operations, the following alternatives are provided for consideration: (1) Driver and fire fighter(s) are located inside the apparatus in a seated, belted position within the enclosed cab. Water is discharged via a monitor or turret that is controlled from within the apparatus.
(2) Driver and fire fighter(s) are located inside the apparatus in a seated, belted position within the enclosed cab, but water is discharged with a short hose line or hard line out an open cab window.
(3) Driver is located inside the apparatus in a seated, belted position within the enclosed cab with one or more fire fighters seated and belted in the on-board pump-and-roll firefighting position as described in a following section.
(4) Driver is located inside the apparatus in a seated, belted position within the enclosed cab. Firefighter(s) is located outside the cab, walking alongside the apparatus, in clear view of the driver, discharging water with a short hose line.

“Under no circumstances is it ever considered a safe practice to ride standing or seated on the exterior of the apparatus for mobile attack other than seated and belted in an on-board pump-and-roll firefighting position. [2016b].”

Wildfire burns historic structures in Big Bend National Park

The fire started in Mexico and jumped the Rio Grande River

Castolon Fire Big Bend National Park
Fire damage to the barracks (Visitor Center and store) and picnic area in Big Bend National Park. Credit: NPS/T. VandenBerg.

A wildfire that started in Mexico jumped across the Rio Grande Wednesday May 22 and spread into the Castolon area in Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas. At least one historic structure was very heavily damaged, the barracks structure which housed the Castolon Visitor Center and La Harmonia store.

Castolon Fire Big Bend National Park
Structural and wildland engines used in defense of the Castolon Historic District, as seen from the driveway of the Officers Quarters. Image credit: NPS/CSchuler.

Thursday afternoon the Park provided a summary of the incident:


“Around 6pm [Wednesday], as the fire first entered the park, additional wildland crews as well as structural crews were called in. At that time, shade temperatures were near 109 degrees, with single digit relative humidity. Winds were pushing the fire NW toward the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and based on fire behavior at that time, the fire was expected to stay in the lower elevations along the Rio Grande burning the mesquite and river cane bosques. Continue reading “Wildfire burns historic structures in Big Bend National Park”

Firefighter fatality in Texas

Andy Loller
Andy Loller. Photo credit: Weatherford Fire Department.

Richard “Andy” Loller, Jr., a firefighter assigned to the Scenic Loop Complex of Fires in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, suffered a medical emergency and passed away June 10. He was flown by helicopter to receive medical treatment and was stabilized before being placed on a medical airplane to Odessa to receive further treatment. While in flight he passed away.

“We are all deeply shocked and saddened by the news of Andy’s passing,” said Weatherford City Manager Sharon Hayes. “He will be sorely missed by the community and all who knew and worked with him. Our prayers are with his family at this time.”

Currently, arrangements are underway to care for his family. Firefighter Loller, Jr. was 42 years of age and was assigned to Weatherford, Texas Fire Department Station 36 on A-Shift. He served 13 years in the fire service and is survived by his wife, two children, and a sister.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of firefighter Loller.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Perry.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

18 fires being managed as Scenic Loop Complex in Texas

Scenic Loop Complex of Fires
Scenic Loop Complex of Fires, by SEAT pilot Marc Mullis. Uploaded to Inciweb June 6, 2018.

A thunderstorm on June 3 that pelted the Davis Mountains in west Texas with lightning started 18 wildfires. Rain that followed may have put some of them out and others could have burned together, but remaining are at least 7 fires ranging between 11 and 3,541 acres, for a total burned area of approximately 8,134 acres.

The fires are spreading through rough terrain and currently are not a threat to any subdivisions. They are 14 miles west of Fort Davis, 6 miles west of the McDonald Observatory, and as close as half a mile north of the McDannald Fire that burned 19,000 acres north of Highway 166 in the first part of May.

Map of the fires Scenic Loop Complex
Map of the fires in the Scenic Loop Complex. Current at 2:21 a.m. CDT June 6, 2018.

The Lone Star State Type 2 Incident Management Team is in unified command with the County of Jeff Davis to manage the fires. A Type 1 Incident Management Team has been ordered.

Currently firefighters are being supported by helicopters, as well as Very Large, Large, and Single Engine Air Tankers. Multiple hand crews are en route.