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BROADVIEW — Frank Canella gave the musical refrain “high voltage rock ‘n’ roll” a whole new meaning Tuesday morning as he sat on a bobbing platform attached to a helicopter flying about 100 feet above the ground next to an energized 500-kilovolt power line — the highest voltage line in Montana.

“People want to have fun at work, but once the skids leave the ground, it’s game on,” Canella said before taking off from a nearby cow pasture for the day’s work.

Canella, helicopter pilot Laurence Perry and lineman Matt Brink made up the Haverfield Aviation team installing bird diverters on the Colstrip transmission line where it crosses a 3,000-acre wetland on the prairie north of Billings.

Bird strikes

In damp years, the prairie wetland has attracted as many as 100,000 waterfowl and shore birds. Although birds can see the larger three wires carrying electricity and avoid them, there are also two static wires above the other lines that are used to divert lightning strikes. Birds have trouble seeing those smaller lines and sometimes hit them and die.

Back in the late 1970s, the wetland was even larger — covering about 10,000 acres of prairie — and the power line was newly installed.

“That was when they noticed a big botulism die-off,” said Ray Mulé, wildlife manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP biologists picked up 65,000 dead birds of 55 species in those high-water years and found that many had died, not just from botulism, but also from striking the transmission lines. The majority of the dead birds were dabbling ducks and eared grebes.

Agency officials theorized that the botulism outbreak may have been caused by birds hitting the lines, falling into the water and dying. The dead birds provided the botulism bacteria with a protein source that let it flourish. Maggots that fed on the dead birds and were eaten by live birds helped spread the outbreak.

New fears

With the water rising on the prairie after a wet spring last year, FWP officials noted bird deaths climbing once again and began working with NorthWestern Energy officials to find a long-term solution to the problem.

“Now we have products we can install to make the lines more visible,” said Sam Milodragovich, a biologist for NorthWestern Energy, an option that wasn’t available back when the power lines were installed.

The FireFly I fixed bird diverters are essentially plastic reflectors with blocks of orange, green and a phosphorescent material that glows in the dark. The reflectors are attached to a spring-loaded device that clamps onto the transmission line. The diverters are attached about every 60 feet. Although simple to clamp on, the hard part is getting the lineman quickly, safely and efficiently to the energized line high above the ground.

That’s where Haverfield comes in.

Installing the bird diverters is an unusual job that requires an array of special gear and safety precautions. Haverfield claims to be the leading provider of aerial power line inspection and construction support services in the world.

“The biggest concern we have is the wind,” said Perry, who piloted the black MD 500 helicopter.

Perry said he can fly in wind up to about 23 mph. Gusts are dangerous since the helicopter is usually only a foot to a foot-and-a-half away from the electrical wire.

“It’s as if (Canella) was working at a bench, and I’m holding the stool he’s working on,” Perry explained of the work relationship between the pilot and lineman.

As if working from a hovering helicopter isn’t difficult enough, there is also the electricity complicating the operation.

“Electricity, all it wants to do is go to ground,” Perry said. “As soon as we get close to the line, it will jump to us.”

To deal with that danger, the lineman touches the line with a long wand as the helicopter hovers closer. Then, a clamp can be attached to the wire so the lineman, helicopter and pilot are all the same potential voltage. If the crew’s potential is lower than the line’s, then the charge would carry to the crew.

“When you’re all in the same potential, electricity sees you as part of the wire,” Perry explained.

To protect himself, Canella wears a jumpsuit that is 75 percent Nomex, a fire-resistant fabric, and 25 percent stainless steel fibers.

“We call ‘em hot suits,” Canella said.

The hot suit’s principle is the same as a Faraday cage, a mesh of conductive material that blocks out electric fields. Canella also wears gloves and sometimes socks that contain the steel fibers.

“Basically you’re a piece of wire,” Canella said. “I’m very, very conductive.”

The crew is expected to take one or two days to install 650 of the bird diverters, which are advertised as reducing bird strikes by 60 to 80 percent. The diverters alone cost $30,000. The crew work will be billed out at about $40,000 to $50,000, Milodragovich said. All of the work is paid for by NorthWestern Energy.

After the work is done, FWP biologists will boat around the shallow wetlands once a week in search of dead birds to prevent another outbreak of botulism and to see if the number of bird deaths drops because of the diverters.

“Now the goal is to prevent a situation similar to what happened in the 1970s from happening again,” FWP’s Mulé said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.