News, Utilities, Wildfire

Electric utilities submit final plans to prevent wildfires, shutoffs as season ramps up

Nearly all of Oregon’s 41 electric utilities have submitted their final plans to the state for preventing wildfires and managing shutoffs, according to the Public Utilities Commission. 

Most were submitted this month as the beginning of Oregon’s wildfire season was declared. Just one, from the Clearwater Power Company, which serves about 177 customers in northeast Oregon, will take until August to file its plans. 

This is the first time such plans have been mandatory since Senate Bill 762, the omnibus wildfire bill, passed in 2021. It requires electric utilities in the state to identify areas they serve that have a high wildfire potential and to create a strategy for minimizing risks and for protecting public safety. 

Utilities must also come up with a process for informing local officials and emergency managers ahead of possible power shutoffs and to provide frequent updates. 

“As we anticipate higher than average temperatures in the next week, we appreciate that Oregon electric utilities have gone through the planning process to prepare for a possible” shutoff,  Commissioner Letha Tawney wrote in a statement. 

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Utilities ultimately decide whether to initiate a power shutoff during extreme and dangerous weather conditions. Shutoffs could help save the homes and other structures of hundreds, even thousands of Oregonians by preventing wildfires. 

The Public Utilities Commission – a governor-appointed group of three – only oversees the three investor-owned electric companies operating in the state: Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and Idaho Power. They serve  about 1.5 million people, or about one-third of the state’s population, and had their plans approved in April. Local boards or municipalities approved plans from Oregon’s 38 other electric utilities that are either consumer-owned or overseen by local boards or municipalities before they went to the commission this month.

The Eugene Water and Electricity Board, the largest consumer-owned utility in the state, which serves 96,000 customers, is spending $1 million on equipment updates, maintenance and vegetation management and removal in high-risk places, especially around the McKenzie River Valley. The 2020 Holiday Farm Fire in the area burned more than 170,000 acres and destroyed about 500 homes. Its cause is still unknown.

“A lot of this is stuff we’ve been doing for years and years and we’re adding more wildfire prevention on top,” said Jeannine Parisi, the Eugene Board’s resiliency manager. Parisi said the utility is upgrading some transmission lines in high-risk areas to go into “safety mode” when the National Weather Service declares a “red flag warning.” Those warnings signal warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds coalescing to create wildfire conditions. In safety mode, if a tree limb hits a wire or an environmental factor is stressing the line, it automatically turns off and sends a signal to the utility. They can then send a technician to investigate and to decide whether it’s safe to re-power the line. 

In 2021, the utility shut down one of its transmission lines in the McKenzie River area for a week at the request of the U.S. Forest Service when a fire was moving quickly nearby. 

“It’s always an action of last resort,” Parisi said. 

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

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