Xcel, Holy Cross scramble to replace power poles, secure valley’s electricity | AspenTimes.com

Xcel, Holy Cross scramble to replace power poles, secure valley’s electricity

There's an intense effort underway on the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain that isn't as desperate as the firefighting of July 3 to 5 but nearly as vital.

Xcel Energy has a small army of its employees and contractors working from dawn to dusk to replace power poles that were damaged and, in some cases, sheared off by the Lake Christine Fire. Those poles support the four transmission lines that provide the bulk of power to the Roaring Fork Valley. Holy Cross Energy transfers that electricity to its customers via smaller distribution lines.

A combination of transmission and distribution lines was knocked out of commission early in the fire, placing the Roaring Fork Valley perilously close to a blackout. Pitkin and Eagle counties issued alerts the night of July 4 that the valley could be without power for as long as 72 hours.

Aspen was in jeopardy of losing power in the middle of one its busiest weeks of the year.

Power has never been lost but the system remains exposed. That's why Xcel and Holy Cross have scrambled to replace poles and get more lines back in operation.

"There are 65 poles that have been damaged and have to be replaced," Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said. Only a "handful" had been replaced as of the end of Wednesday, he said. Repairs will continue into next week.

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The slope above El Jebel — where the fire crested and swept toward the mobile home park the terrifying night of July 4 — has whirled with methodical activity the past three days. A lot of that activity is visible and very audible from the valley floor.

Bulldozers cleared rough old roads apparently left over from the placement of the electrical transmission lines decades ago and cut some new spurs. They are white lines scratched into the charred vegetation and black ground.

Next, helicopters came in and removed the poles felled by ground crews or chunks of poles that were removed. They are flying in fresh, gleaming poles stockpiled during the fire recovery near the blue lake in the subdivision of the same name.

Crews with boom trucks wrestle three-story poles into place.

The poles range between 60 and 110 feet, depending on the terrain where they are used. The largest poles weigh in excell of three tons, according to Stutz.

There are 90 workers, 65 vehicles and two heavy-lift helicopters undertaking the work for Xcel, he said.

Holy Cross Energy has a distribution substation a short distance from Xcel's transmission substation, but Holy Cross' site wasn't in the burn area. From its substation, smaller distribution lines provide power to its customers in the Roaring Fork Valley as well as Gypsum.

Holy Cross lost 11 poles on its distribution lines, including one in El Jebel Mobile Home Park, according to Cody O'Neil, vice president of Glenwood district operations. Some have already been replaced, he said.

The poles are treated so that they don't rot but they aren't fire resistant, O'Neil said. The poles often crack, so wind-whipped embers can blow into the crevices and set them ablaze.

On a tour of the initial burn area July 4, a team from The Aspen Times saw poles that had partially burned off, leaving fragments hanging in the air.

Some of the transmission lines have massive metal poles. It wasn't immediately clear if any of those poles needed to be replaced. Metal is more fire resistant but considerably more expensive to erect.

No estimate was immediately available on how much it will cost the companies to replace the poles.

scondon@aspentimes.com