Best of the West: Wildfire preparations; NREL expansion; A new transmission line, A new geothermal facility; A new access point for public lands; and Chief Standing Bear’s historic stamp

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 29, 2023. (Photos courtesy of  wiratgasem, Jesse Paul, NREL, The Big Snowy Mountain Wildlife Management Area, and the U.S. Postal Service).     

May was National Fire Prevention Month and unfortunately, despite a wet spring, many of us in the West are already feeling the effects of wildfire as smoke inundates several communities throughout the region.

So what are western states doing to prepare for this year’s “wildfire season”?  

Many have begun large-scale mitigation projects in high-risk areas.

The Nevada Division of State Lands announced that it will receive $1.4 million for hazardous fuels reduction at Marlette Lake, on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. 

Rocky Mountain Power is updating its transmission and distribution lines from Utah Olympic Park to downtown Park City. It’s part of a six-state, half-a-billion-dollar, improvement project designed to prevent and mitigate wildfires, particularly those caused by electrical disturbances.

Three national forests in Colorado received $47 million to develop wildfire fuel breaks, which have proven to be an effective strategy for protecting critical infrastructure and resources, especially watersheds. Wildland crews also use the fuel breaks as safe spaces to work while battling fires or assisting with prescribed burns.

Taos County in New Mexico developed a “Mayordomo Program” in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that pays local woodcutters $300 an acre for fire mitigation projects. The agreement even allows those who take part in the program to use the trees for personal use or sale.

The Loveland City Council, which represents a city in Colorado that was devastated by the Marshall Fire, adopted a new slate of fire safety codes that includes measures aimed at making future neighborhoods more resistant to fire damage and spread.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, which was threatened by a fire in 2022, brought up a herd of cattle to graze the hillside south of the research facility in Boulder. By grazing, the cattle reduce vegetation that can become fuel for a wildfire and stop the spread of invasive plants.

Many western states are also investing in new technology to better protect communities from wildfires.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill allocating $26 million to buy another “Firehawk,” a Black Hawk helicopter that’s been converted from military operations specifically to fight fires. The Firehawk’s top speed is about 160 mph, and it can quickly slurp up and drop 1,000 gallons of water.

The Salt River Project in Arizona is in the process of installing AI-enabled cameras that can detect smoke in remote areas from up to 10 miles away, enhancing the company’s ability to safeguard transmission towers and limit damage to property and wilderness regions.

Portland General Electric, Oregon’s largest electricity company, is investing more than $20 million in its wildfire mitigation and resiliency plan this year, which includes increasing inspections of utility poles, expanding what it considers “high-risk zones” and deploying more advanced technology – like high-def AI cameras – to detect wildfires across the region.

California Congressmen Jim Costa (D) and David Valadao (R) introduced the bipartisan Emergency Wildfire Fighting Technology Act to increase investment in alternative firefighting systems by evaluating and updating deployment protocols for Containerized Aerial Fire Fighting Systems (CAFFS). 

NREL Expansion: The U.S. Department of Energy announced its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will begin work on a series of additions and improvements using $150 million within the Inflation Reduction Act. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announced the funding during a recent visit to NREL with Colorado Governor Jared Polis, where they dedicated the newest building, the Research and Innovation Laboratory (RAIL). The RAIL building (rendering pictured), which will house multipurpose lab space, is the first laboratory building to open on the campus in nearly a decade. The funding will also develop The South Table Mountain Energy Park (STEP), which will serve as an incubator for clean energy companies. The state of Colorado intends to build the Global Energy Park directly adjacent to NREL as a hub for the cleantech industry.

Transmission lines: About a year after an environmental review was completed, The U.S. Department of the Interior approved the SunZia transmission line, which will create 520 miles of transmission lines to send wind-and-solar-generated electricity from the rural plains of New Mexico to major cities in Arizona and California. Construction is expected to start later this year. It will be about three years until the line begins delivering power, the company said.

Geothermal Energy: Ormat Technologies recently brought the new 25-megawatt North Valley geothermal plant online. In order to connect the North Valley facility to the NV Energy power grid, Ormat constructed more than 58 miles of transmission line through some of the most remote, arid, and inhospitable mountains in the Silver State and built a new substation. The facility is expected to provide enough energy each year to power more than 22,000 homes. “Ratepayers in Nevada will be affected less because of natural gas volatility because this power plant is operating,” said Paul Thomsen, Ormat’s vice president of business development.

Public Land Access: After Forest Allen, a local sheep herder and WWII veteran passed away, he donated 5,600 acres to The Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area in Montana. The land is now being used to develop a new access point that will allow the public to access over 100,000 acres of land that were previously isolated and difficult to reach.

Stamp on History: Chief Standing Bear, whose landmark lawsuit in 1879 established that a Native American is a person under the law, is on a new postage stamp. The stamp's release comes 146 years after the U.S. Army forcibly removed Chief Standing Bear and some 700 other members of the tribe from their homeland in northeast Nebraska. When Standing Bear made the perilous trip back to Nebraska to honor his son with a burial in the tribe's homeland in 1879, he was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Omaha.

During the trial, Standing Bear extended his right hand and told Federal Judge Elmer Dundy, "That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both."

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