With the increase in wildfires around western North America, it’s become a question of not if, but when communications towers will be in jeopardy of loss or damage due to fire. Although the increasing threat to public safety communications towers is generally noticeable, including multiple fire encroachments of communications towers on Santiago Peak in Orange County, CA, and the destruction of a radio tower near Detroit, OR, it’s still startling to observe the increase in number of acres burned annually in the US has from 1.3 million in the early 80s to 10.1 million in 2020.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center
Wildfires have the capacity to not only jeopardize daily public safety communications, but can deter and prevent critical response to wildfires themselves. But although wildfires cannot be prevented, there are steps that can reduce or avoid impact to both existing and new construction communications towers.
Planning New Construction
Before a communications tower is built, there are multiple considerations that can help reduce or prevent loss from wildfires, including location, building materials, and arrangement of tower essentials on the site. Most tower site buildings are pre-fabricated, and usually with concrete or a lighter weight structure. While neither material will completely stop an intense blaze, concrete offers a bit more protection of the comms equipment located inside if it is possible to be transported to the site.
Ensuring the tower site is the proper size is crucial to limiting risk from fire. (Our experts typically recommend increasing the planned site size by as much as double, when possible.) Going along with the site size, creating a 75’x75’ gravel barrier is also recommended. Other tactics, including burying power lines and propane tanks, are examples of fire safety an experienced team can provide if the situation warrants.
Although it’s preferable to build a tower with key fire safety standards, existing tower sites can also be improved, including extending fire breaks, laying gravel around a site, upgrading roofing material, and providing safe protective barriers to HVAC intakes to help prevent embers from entering tower facilities. A custom evaluation with recommendations specific to a tower scenario can be requested to provide an action plan for improving fire safety.
Regular site visits for visual inspection to equipment, building and safety measures is key, and should include preservation of fire breaks and reduction of vegetation around the tower site. However, it is critical maintenance crews have proper training to help ensure they carry the right equipment to handle and prevent emergencies, such as carrying a water pump, and being aware of the peak danger hours to avoid work during heat season, and proper monitoring of a site post-maintenance to ensure no problems have resulted from the visit.
Not only is it critical to plan preventative maintenance for towers to help protect them from wildfires, having a maintenance plan can deter other year-round threats, such as snow, ice, and vandalism.
Source: The OCR / HP Wren
Due to advances in technology, video monitors are even more beneficial than ever as a tower defense. Along with preventing vandalism, a leading cause of tower damage, video systems can be used to spot wildfires. The same Santiago Peak wildfire was allayed, at least in part, by a system of over 600 cameras in sensitive wilderness areas.
With the latest automation, tower surveillance can alert a designated series of contacts when any concerning activity occurs, potentially saving millions of dollars to towers and other impacted private and public property.
The toughest question for any public project is budget. Primarily, the additional cost for wildfire prevention and maintenance can be demonstrated in long-term savings by avoiding more expensive site damage, or preventing collateral expense and liability by not having a working public safety communications system in place.
However, there are also other funding sources about which your organization may be unaware, such as provisions in the CARES Act.
At Day Wireless, we have a team of experts who can provide customized recommendations, construction and maintenance service, and creative solutions for your budgeting process. With over 50 years in public communications and towers sites construction and maintenance, along with 28 service centers throughout the West, let us help craft your wildfire safety communications strategy.