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Electric company to use drones to help identify fire-prone areas

The Maui News

Hawaiian Electric Cos. will be conducting drone studies in West Maui and Maalaea this month and in December to identify areas vulnerable to wildfire and to determine actions to protect the public and utility infrastructure.

The inspections are part of HECO’s proactive assessment and management of vegetation near electrical infrastructure, especially in drought-prone or dry brush areas that are susceptible to wildfires.

HECO, which includes subsidiary Maui Electric Co., evaluated wildfire mitigation plans filed by major utilities in California and studied Hawaii’s fire ignition maps to determine areas of greatest risk for fires, the utility said. Unlike California, many HECO utility lines run through moist tropical forests and areas with high rainfall, which allows the utility to focus on the drought-prone and dry areas where sparks could ignite dry grass and brush beneath power lines.

There have been a rash of wildfires this summer and fall, the most recent a 4,100-acre fire that started above Maalaea and burned over the pali in October.

Other measures HECO and its subsidiary companies have taken to prevent fires include:

• Installing heavier, insulated conductors to stop lines from slapping and sparking in high wind areas.

• Installing smart switches and smart fuses to minimize sparks created when lines come in contact with each other and vegetation.

• Applying fire retardants on poles in fire hazard areas. Last month, HECO tested different fire retardants on wooden poles in a controlled burn to determine which products work best.

• Looking into using weather sensors, cameras and thermal imagers to give more precise locations on localized wind gusts, relative humidity and temperatures.