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Cost concerns biggest barrier to protecting communities from wildfire

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Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) The nation is beefing up its power grids for the transition to fueling everything from cars to home cooling systems with electricity, and addressing hazards along the way.

Engineers believe they are ready to implement a common-sense solution for stopping the sparks from power lines, which have led to destructive wildfires, including the one that burned down the entire town of Paradise, California.

Paul Chinowsky, director of the climate consulting firm Resilient Analytics, said burying distribution lines underground would essentially eliminate the risk of sparking wildfires.

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"Most people would agree that other than places where you have very high flood danger, that's a great option," Chinowsky argued. "Why aren't we doing it when other countries are? Bottom line: cost. Who's going to pay for it?"

Chinowsky called President Joe Biden's infrastructure legislation a good start, but with the price of undergrounding power lines at $4 million per mile or more, much more will be needed to reconfigure power distribution, especially across vast expanses in Colorado and other Western states.

Chinowsky pointed to successful federal efforts which brought electricity to rural America for the first time in the 1930s as one potential way forward.

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He pointed out the cost of damage from wildfires -- lost homes and other structures, the health impacts of dangerous air quality and the long term impacts on watersheds -- far outweighs any upfront investment to move power lines underground.

"The Marshall Fire, that was a huge event. It's not going to be the last one," Chinowsky noted. "There is no question that the investment long term will be less than the amount we would pay in rebuilding after disaster events."

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According to state officials, Colorado's core fire seasons are 78 days longer on average than they were in the 1970s, a situation made more dire by rising temperatures, prolonged drought and blasting winds.

Chinowski added what gets lost in hyperpartisan debates around infrastructure investments is the fact power lines can spark wildfires in any neighborhood, regardless of political affiliation.

"We lose the focus that this is ultimately a public-safety issue, and we're talking about trying to save peoples' lives," Chinowski contended. "We need to focus on that again."