USA – PENDLETON — While power companies expect to use more blackouts to prevent wildfires in California, that tool so far remains in the box in Oregon.
The Golden State already is fire-prone with lots of dry plants and woodlands — but add high winds that can knock down power lines or cause them to spark, then watch out, wildfire experts said.
The darker outlook hits close to home for Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, who like so many others had his electricity cut off by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
“At this point we don’t have a better option for reducing risk than shutting electricity off,” Field said. “It’s better than having a whole community burn down.”
Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Canada, said “the new reality” is there will be more fires with drier and hotter weather from man-made global warming. So he said power shutdowns like those by California utilities are more likely to happen to try to avoid catastrophic fires with losses of lives and property like those that plunged PG&E into bankruptcy.
“Power shutdowns, that’s pretty dramatic. It’s very effective. It’s overkill,” Flannigan said. “It’s a trend.”
Oregon, however, has avoided the trend.
Pacific Power spokesperson Drew Hanson said that’s in large measure to the differences in climate between Oregon and its southern neighbor. But Pacific Power is ready to flip off the switch if the crisis calls for such drastic action.
“So we adopted the public safety power shutoff prior to the 2019 fire season,” Hanson said, but the company would use that only as a last resort in areas experiencing extreme fire conditions, such as combinations of hot temperatures, low humidity and high wind gusts. Parts of Josephine, Jackson, Douglas, Klamath and Hood River counties, he said, are at the highest risk for wildfire in Oregon.
Based on data from the past eight years, Hanson said, conditions in Oregon would not have warranted cutting off the flow.
Steve Meyers with the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, Hermiston, said the local company has no plans to use blackouts to curtail wildfires the way California utilities are doing.
“However,” he said, “like utilities throughout the West, UEC takes action each fire season to address wildfire concerns.”
The cooperative every year trims trees to minimize the risk of a fire caused by contact with power lines. And this year as an added precaution, the cooperative has been shredding and mulching underbrush under power lines in high density areas, clearing away sagebrush, Russian olives and blackberry patches. Clearing utility easements provides firefighters access to remote areas and helps serve as fire breaks in some cases, he explained.
UEC also reconfigures protective equipment on power lines in mountain areas to shut down power at the first sign of an electrical fault, such as the wind pushing two lines together. And juice will not flow through the line again until crews inspect and manually reset the equipment.
And the company in recent years placed portions of our power lines underground in the Weston Mountain area to further protect wildlands, according to Meyers, and on remaining portions of overhead power lines in the mountains, UEC installed “current-limiting fuses, enclosed and filled with sand, to help reduce the chance a faulted line will trigger an event.”
Hanson said the overriding message from the fires in California is preparedness, and in the Northwest that means getting ready for winter. He said Pacific Power advises having two weeks of food and water ready for every person and pet in the home and other precautions, such as supplies of prescriptions medications.