In the Flagstaff neighborhood just north of the Flatirons, residents are collaborating to bury their utility lines. With the goal of preventing wildfires started by power lines, the undertaking could be seen as a test case for the rest of the city.

Giles Troughton and Karen Ramsey moved to Boulder from Boston two years ago. Retired from a job in insurance, Troughton was wary of the wildfire risk lurking in the surrounding landscape.

“I told Karen one of my criteria was I didn’t want to live in a wildfire zone,” Troughton said. “You can see I lost that argument.”

Having purchased a house one lot from Flagstaff Mountain, they moved to Boulder in October 2020. Just a few days after moving, they had “ashes falling from the sky” from the nearby Lefthand Canyon Fire.

“Within two or three days of being here we realized ‘oh my goodness, we actually live in a zone where fire is a real risk,’” Ramsey said.

So when they began remodeling their house a year ago, Troughton and Ramsey decided to underground the service line to their house. (A service line brings power to an individual house from the main distribution lines.) Theirs was a droopy old thing that sagged over their backyard. Though the project wouldn’t reduce the risk of wildfire started by embers blown from the nearby mountains, it would at least cut the chance of starting a homegrown fire.

When neighbors heard what they were doing, Troughton and Ramsey discovered others had already been coughing up cash to mitigate fire risk on their own properties. Such investments sometimes came after a close call. Troughton referenced one neighbor, a CU Boulder professor, who paid to underground his service line after a pine tree came down on his line in the windstorm that preceded the Marshall Fire.

“He didn’t want to risk losing his home because a tree took his wires down and started a fire,” Troughton said.

What it looks like when a service line to an individual house is undergrounded off the above-ground distribution lines. Credit: Tim Drugan

A disheartening revelation came when Troughton and Ramsey were told that their neighborhood, built in the 1950s  (“which is why it has [telephone] poles everywhere,” Ramsey said) has a history of trying to put its utility cables underground.

Troughton provided Boulder Reporting Lab a letter dating back to 1999. In it, one resident asked who in the area would be willing to contribute funds to bury wires that “obstruct the dramatic views we all enjoy.”

The effort failed to gain traction.

Though the impetus has changed and the costs have increased (and the provided worldnet.att.net email is likely defunct), the call of the letter rings true 23 years later: Despite undergrounding cutting power line-ignited wildfire risk by as much as 99%, by one utility’s estimate, it’s still only through community collaboration that undergrounding can be achieved. Now maybe even more so than before. Before, the city was willing to lend a little help.

Attached to the neighborhood letter is an explanation of a cost share program, offered by the City of Boulder to those interested in undergrounding their utility cables. The explanation is similarly dated to 1999. 

Now, in 2022, that cost share program is no more. Boulder citizens are on their own for undergrounding projects.

Service lines running down the pole to where they’re undergrounded for individual homes. Credit: Tim Drugan.

Carolyn Elam, Energy Systems Senior Manager for the City of Boulder, explained that the program was previously supported by a 1% undergrounding fund provided by Xcel Energy. According to the agreement, Xcel would invest up to 1% of the annual revenues collected from the City Boulder to underground its overhead lines. That support was lost in 2010, however, when the city let its franchise with Xcel expire. (A franchise is a contract between a municipality and an electric service provider that gives the utility the right to serve customers in the city’s jurisdiction.) “Without that [fund], the [cost share] program was terminated,” Elam said.

In the 15 or so years the cost share program was active, Boulder doled out more than $600,000 to help homeowners underground their utility cables.

When the city returned to a franchise agreement with Xcel in 2021— after residents voted to end its yearslong effort to become its own municipal utility — so too returned the 1% fund. But the city did not restore the cost share program. Due, Elam said, “to equity concerns.”

“[We want to ensure] the limited funds available are being directed towards projects that benefit many residents and businesses, not just those who have the financial capacity to cost share an undergrounding project,” she said.

That doesn’t mean efforts to return to some incentive mechanism aren’t in the works, however.

“We are working hard on new tools and programs outside of the 1% fund to support community members in their undergrounding efforts,” Elam said. “We do think there will be some programs we can begin implementing starting in 2023.”

But 2023 won’t help Troughton and Ramsey in the first phase of their project as boring (digging tunnels for the wires) has already begun. Yet with the goal of undergrounding their entire neighborhood, future city programs could help Troughton and Ramsey realize their long-term vision.

“It would be great to [underground] the entire city of Boulder,” Troughton said. “We chose to take a smaller bite of the apple and get something done: Prove the concept and prove success.”

Costs and collaboration: Neighbors learn how to do this at scale

The smaller bite they took was undergrounding 400 feet of cable and ridding their neighborhood of three utility poles. Impacting eight houses, Troughton and Ramsey solicited contributions from 15 families. The seven not currently impacted wrote checks because they saw a benefit in gaining momentum for the project that might eventually make it to their homes.

“It’s in the community’s interest for power lines in high wind zone/fire prone areas to be subsurface,” Troughton said.

When a house catches fire, especially in an area as densely populated as Flagstaff, radiant heat can be enough to ignite nearby homes. But those in close proximity are not the only ones at risk. 

Imagine Troughton and Ramsey’s home catches fire due to a power line downed by a westerly wind. That same wind could carry burning material from their house deeper into town, setting ablaze a home in Lower Chautauqua, and maybe one on University Hill. As seen with the Marshall Fire, in the right conditions devastating dominoes can continue to fall.

Troughton drew the analogy to getting vaccinated against Covid. “It’s in my interest for you to get vaccinated,” he said. “And it’s in your interest for me to get vaccinated.”

Contributions were not evenly distributed for the 400 foot stretch of cable. Indeed, most neighbors have no idea what others gave. Each family contributed whatever they felt they could give in a more successful iteration of the Articles of Confederation. To maintain community cohesion, the neighborhood chose a homeowner who had lived in the area upwards 30 years, someone who “everybody liked and everybody trusted,” to manage the pool of cash.

That neighbor was Shirley Berg. “Everyone likes Shirley,” Troughton said.

“People know me, so they weren’t worried I was going to abscond with the money,” Berg said. “They knew where I lived; they knew the work I do. It’s a really good neighborhood where there are really good feelings between neighbors.”

Berg refused to take much credit for being the neighborhood’s mediator. She said Ramsey and Troughton did the lion’s share of the work, but being new to the area they wanted a more established community member to collect the funds. “I viewed it as [being] a facilitator,” Berg said. “Somebody needed to do it.”

Berg set up a bank account for the neighborhood, reviewed contracts and signed checks on the community’s behalf. How such a project would work on a larger scale, however, is unclear.

“What we’re trying to figure out is how to do this at scale without putting any individual person at risk,” Ramsey said. 

Costing about $120,000, the project comes in at roughly 300 dollars per foot of cable. 

“It’s not inexpensive to do,” Troughton said, and lamented that left to their own devices, it’s unlikely utilities would pay to undertake such a project.

What about the utilities?

Yet despite the cost, it might be in a utility’s long-term interest to invest in undergrounding. As is on display in California, power lines that start fires can come back to bite those tasked with maintaining them. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a San Francisco-based utility company, recently declared bankruptcy after a series of lawsuits and penalties arrived on their doorstep from their equipment starting wildfires. Between 2016 and 2020, wildfires ignited by electric power accounted for 19 percent of California acres burned. (PG&E is now working to bury 10,000 miles of power lines and equipment in areas with high fire risk.)

“We’re saving them money,” Ramsey said of the utilities, citing less possibility for outages due to limbs falling on power lines and cars running into telephone poles. Ramsey and her neighbors are also reducing the possibility of future lawsuits for the utilities. “This is 400 feet of cable that’s not gonna burn the neighborhood down,” Troughton added.

Streamlining the process will be necessary, however, should it be undertaken on a greater scale. As Troughton and Ramsey experienced, an estimate had to be obtained by Xcel for the work, then an estimate from Comcast and finally Century Link — all of whom share real estate on the city’s telephone poles. Unless you underground all three, the poles shall remain. But by the time Troughton and Ramsey received estimates from the telecom companies, Xcel’s estimate had expired. 

“We see opportunities for greater collaboration and efficiency between the three utility providers than currently exists,” Troughton said.

But there’s hope. Just hours after BRL’s interview, Troughton followed up in an email: “After you left today we received confirmation that the telecom companies will be using a single company to perform their boring, a positive development that indicates a willingness to collaborate.”

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.

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