Power lines have caused 41 wildfires that have burned 57,151 acres in the Black Hills since 2013, according to statistics from the South Dakota Wildland Fire Division.
The year 2013 was when Black Hills Energy undertook a five-year, $14.8 million project to clean out the right-of-way corridors along its electrical distribution network in the Black Hills. Full information about the ownership of the power lines that caused the 41 fires was not immediately available, and there are other entities besides Black Hills Energy that provide electricity in and around the Black Hills, including several cooperatives.
When other causes of wildfires are considered, including lightning and human activity, the wildfires caused by power lines have accounted for only 3 percent of the total number of wildfires — but 75 percent of the total acres burned — during the past five years in the Black Hills.
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The acreage numbers are distorted by the exceptional size of the Legion Lake Fire, which burned 54,023 acres. But in this case, the exception could be the rule. Fires caused by contact between trees and power lines are “typically much more damaging and costly than typical wildland fires,” according to a report commissioned by the federal government on the vegetation management practices of utilities.
In the Black Hills, power lines have caused not only the third-largest wildfire in the region’s history (the Legion Lake Fire) but also the second-largest (the Oil Creek Fire, in 2012).
And unlike lightning, which causes dozens of wildfires each year but is typically confined to the summer, power lines are a year-round wildfire threat. During the past five years in the Black Hills, wildfires caused by power lines have happened in each month of the year except February, and have happened most often in December.