Bark beetle epidemic causes fire risk across Kachemak Bay

HEA asks borough’s help in removing problem trees

Posted: Monday, January 23, 2006

Portions of power lines supplying energy to the isolated communities on the south side of Kachemak Bay are virtually surrounded by dead or dying spruce suffering the effects of the bark beetle infestation that has wiped out more than a million acres of forest on the Kenai Peninsula during that past 20 years.

Homer Electric Association has asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough to fund a project to remove trees from around a 3.5-mile section of utility line running between Sadie Cove and Tutka Bay. That section is part of the line supplying Seldovia, Port Graham and English Bay.

In a letter to the Mayor John Williams, HEA General Manager Bradley Janorschke noted the utility’s ongoing “aggressive tree-clearing program” using cooperative and federal funds. The latest proposed project, expected to cost a little over $366,000, is meant to address “significant beetle-kill area” on the south side of the bay.

“The spruce bark beetle trees pose a threat to the reliability of the electric system and are a fire risk for many areas of the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Janorschke said.

At its Jan. 17 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly introduced Ordinance 2005-19-42, which would fund the project with $366,220, money that comes from interest earned on roughly $13 million in federal funds appropriated to the borough over the past six years for the mitigation of beetle-kill hazards. In all, the federal dollars have produced $1.1 million in interest earnings, according to the borough.

Ordinance 2005-19-42 is set for a public hearing and final action Feb. 21.

Power is supplied to the south side of Kachemak Bay through an underwater cable connecting the Homer Spit to McKeon Flats. From a junction there, energy is distributed in the Sadie Cove line to Seldovia, while another carries power to Halibut Cove.

Eventually, trees around the entire length of the south bay lines, approximately 40 miles, will have to be cleared, said Joe Gallagher, spokesperson for HEA. That job will be the focus of future projects, he said.

“We continue to maintain that line, but our existing right of way is only 40 feet — 20 feet on each side,” he said. “That’s a problem. There are lots of trees causing problems for that line that lay outside our utility easement.”

Many, if not most trees along the route are tall enough to contact the line if they fall, Gallagher noted. Trees coming into contact with power lines have caused fires in the past. Last year, for instance, a tree hit and cracked an insulator on a pole near Tracy Avenue east of Homer. Over time, Gallagher said, that insulator failed.

The Tracy Avenue Fire that resulted burned more than 5,400 acres and cost millions in fire response and property damage.

The project to clear the trees from the Sadie Cove-Tutka Bay stretch would begin sometime in April or May — essentially before the appearance of thick summer undergrowth but after ground snow has melted to manageable levels, Gallagher said.

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