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Sevier County Electric responds after downed power lines starts two major wildfires

The company says it did everything right; all systems were functioning properly and the response was timely.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — Sevier County investigators said they believe the Wears Valley and Seymour wildfires were caused by high winds and downed power lines. The fire burned for days, scorching thousands of acres and destroying dozens of homes and other buildings.

The electric company linked to the powerline is Sevier County Electric. Manager Allen Robbins said the company doesn't expect any direct changes to the way it manages powerlines now. 

Robbins confirmed a tree did appear to have fallen onto one of the company's powerlines but said the company was up to state and local code requirements when it comes to trimming the around lines. 

"We're up, trimmed and operational working as they should and everything operated as it should. The one thing we can't control is mother nature," Robbins said. 

He said the tree was more than 70 feet from the power line when it fell and that it was on the other side of the road than the power line that sparked. When a tree hit the power line, he said their systems were alerted and fire crews were dispatched to the area. 

"Our system was operating as it should and we were trimmed as we should, that meets the industry standards," Robbins said. 

He said the company spends about $6 million dollars each period to keep trees trimmed. The period is on a 3-year rotation and it goes in a circle. They start in one area and make their way across the serving area and once linemen reach the starting point, they start the period over. 

The alternative to using overhead power lines would be to bury them, but Robbins said that's not as simple as it may seem. 

"We don't have the resources to even begin that. Even, as I said, Gatlinburg and Sevierville, when they did those two projects, those were multi-million dollar projects that both cities paid for," Robbins said. 

Aside from money, he said, it's a mountainous terrain with a lot of rocks and trees. 

"It's not really feasible when you go into these bounteous areas. It's Rocky Top for a reason," Robbins said. 

While burying the lines underground is aesthetically pleasing, Robbins said, he said it could also slow response time, possibly increasing the time it takes to determine the area where a problem could arise.  

"You can't just go and look for it and figure out where it's at. Sometimes you just have to pull the whole circuit and start again," Robbins said.

He also said disaster response is where the company sets its focus.  After a disaster, Sevier County Electric meets with city and county, fire, EMS and law enforcement officials to determine what can be improved. 

"It was a community effort and we all come together and emergency planning where we all work together," Robbins said. 

Robbins said the level of communication enhancements among those groups helped save lives during the wildfire, adding they were able to restore power by the following Saturday.

    

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