Prescribed Fire Near Power Lines Could Zap Your Wallet

February 16, 2024 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

When you’re writing a prescribed fire plan for your hunting land and considering all the sensitive nearby areas that should be protected from smoke and flame, don’t forget power lines. Mixing fire with electrical lines could send a serious jolt through your bank account or – worse – cause personal injury or death.

Chances are fairly good your private hunting land or lease contains a power line right-of-way. The U.S. electrical grid contains more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and more than 5 million miles of smaller distribution lines. When they run through hunting land, these easements provide linear openings that make great shooting lanes. The openings can also be used as food plots if the company that owns the line allows it. Though the openings are usually maintained and trimmed by the power company, they still grow grass and forbs that can provide cover and forage for deer – and carry a prescribed fire.

My family’s farm Grace Acres is transected by a high-voltage transmission line with enormous metal towers and a smaller distribution line with wooden poles (photo below). Both lines adjoin woods that we manage with prescribed fire. I thought of those lines last September as I listened to a presentation by Brad Wright, a Transmission Right of Way Specialist with Georgia Power Co., who spoke at a Georgia Prescribed Fire Council meeting. 

The U.S. electrical grid contains over 5 million miles of smaller distribution lines like this one, and many hunting properties are intersected by power line right-of-ways.

It’s Brad’s job to work with private landowners, among other groups, to ensure appropriate use of Georgia Power’s electrical easements. One of 10 Georgia Power right-of-way specialists who has 15 years of experience, Brad sees multiple instances annually of damage to power lines caused by prescribed fire. He spoke to our group of fire enthusiasts to increase awareness of the risks involved when fire burns under or near electrical lines.

“Landowners need to understand the risk if burning their property results in damage to electrical infrastructure,” said Brad. “There can be financial consequences.”

Just two weeks before I published this story, Brad told me, a landowner burning a pasture let the fire get too close to power lines. A wooden power pole caught fire at the base, burned through and fell. This was the kickoff to a new fire season for Brad, who said last year seemed busier than usual.

The Shocking Possibilities

At the extreme, prescribed fire around power lines could kill you. Fire that burns underneath electrical lines, even a mild backing fire, will heat the lines. This causes them to stretch and droop. When the lines are closer to the ground, an arc flash connecting to a person or vehicle passing underneath the line is more likely. Excessive smoke and heat around the line can also cause an electrical arc flash.

Burning grass caught this wooden power pole on fire, and it was completely consumed by flames. Only the insulators were left dangling from the now low-hanging, high-voltage wires. Photo courtesy of Georgia Power Co.

Fire and heat can damage power poles or other equipment like insulators, conductors, wire guides and wire. You could be held financially liable for the damage.

“You can damage equipment without actually burning the pole down,” said Brad. “This is aluminum-core, steel-reinforced wire. If it gets hot enough it will melt that aluminum and you could have a compromised line.”

Wooden power poles treated in creosote are susceptible to fire damage, but sometimes the damage is not obvious. A small spark from burning grass can lodge in tiny cracks in the treated wood and smolder. You might never notice the problem until the pole collapses hours or days after the fire.

What could it cost you? It all depends on the type of equipment and who owns it, but it’s not cheap. According to Brad, costs to repair damaged facilities can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. This is to say nothing of your potential liability for any power outage to local businesses and homes caused by the damage. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to burn a power line right-of-way on your hunting land. Let’s talk about how to ensure that.

How to Prevent Trouble

Georgia Power, like most power companies, has a “no burn” policy on rights-of-way and easements for obvious reasons. But it’s not as simple as disking a firebreak along the edges of power line easements. Power companies often use the outer edges of easements for underground utilities like fiber optics. That’s why many power companies prohibit disking in their easements. So, you shouldn’t use any part of the easement for fire prevention techniques like disking firebreaks. Those usually have to be located outside the boundaries of the easement.

Sparks can lodge in cracks in creosote-treated power poles and smolder for hours or days without you being aware of the trouble. Photo courtesy of Georgia Power Co.

This calls for some long-term planning in your prescribed fire map and property layout. To start with, learn who owns and manages the power line on your hunting land. If you don’t know the exact boundaries of their rights-of-way, contact them to find out, and mark those boundaries just as you would a property line. Then, make sure you can install and maintain clean firebreaks outside those boundaries to prevent fire from reaching the power line opening.

In some cases, the company may be able to grant permission for firebreaks disked within the boundaries of the easement or other prevention techniques. Contact them to find out.

While you’re in touch with the company, find out about any additional rules that affect you, like guidelines for deer stands, food plots and other activities. Learn the names and contact information for local company personnel – like Brad – who work with landowners and easements. Contact them before your next prescribed fire to let them know you’ll be burning near their easements. 

“The idea isn’t to stop people from burning, because it’s a beneficial wildlife management technique,” said Brad. “The idea is to prevent trouble by thinking ahead to keep people and equipment safe.”

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.