With another dry fire season just on the horizon, Pacific Power has announced a new safety measure that is worrying local government and emergency services: Proactively shutting off power during extreme-risk weather conditions.
In its Wildfire Mitigation Plan for the 2019 fire season, Pacific Power details a number of additional safety measures it will make to reduce wildfire risks, including enhancing vegetation inspections and clearance around power lines, increasing facility inspections, investing in improved and more fire-resistant equipment, installing local weather stations, training field crews in wildfire suppression and launching a wildfire education and outreach campaign.
The measure that is worrying local officials is called a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) — an event where Pacific Power would proactively shut off the power when low precipitation and high winds converge during red-flag fire risk days. Emergency services would be given 72-48 hours’ notice before the power goes out; customers would be informed 24 hours in advance and alerted again two hours and one hour before the outage.
“This measure would only be taken as a last resort to help ensure customer and community safety,” said Pacific Power in an official media release.
Pacific Power will launch a public wildfire education and outreach campaign on June 24 to share wildfire safety and prevention tips, and to give customers information on the PSPS policy.
While Pacific Power representatives are working with and receiving input from local emergency service agencies, Hood River County Emergency Management Coordinator Barb Ayers is concerned.
“This issue came up fast in late May and could have high impact on our community,” she said. “There has not been nearly enough time to address power outage impacts to our economy, businesses, vulnerable populations, core agencies and infrastructure.”
In an email to Pacific Power’s regional business manager, Lori Wyman, dated June 5, Ayers said, “We have red flag days and high winds all summer long in the Gorge. With your proposed plan, your team could shut many communities out of power, potentially much of this summer. There is no way our community will be ready, even with two to seven days’ notice. We have very little backup power, countywide.”
Despite asking Pacific Power to delay enacting the measure until next fire season in order to give the community more time to prepare, Ayers said that she believes Pacific Power plans to move forward with the Public Safety Power Shutoffs this fire season, as early as July 1.
“It is too close to fire season now, to respond so quickly to such a significant change, with our small county staffs,” the email continues. “We want to partner, we want to help — but this proposal creates more problems than it solves.”
When asked by a reporter if the measure would be implemented this fire season, Hanson said, “If certain conditions are met, we are prepared to initiate a Public Safety Power Shutoff … (but) there are a lot of variables that go into that decision and it is not something we take lightly.”
“We understand that communication and coordination is vital in areas that are at a higher risk of catastrophic, fast-spreading wildfires where a Public Safety Power Shutoff may be used as a last resort for public safety,” said Drew Hanson, senior communications representative for Pacific Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, in a written statement.
“While we expect a Public Safety Power Shutoff to only be used on rare occasion, we are doing everything we can to work and coordinate with local emergency services agencies, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and community leaders.”
The PSPS policy was first created and adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission after a number of wildfires in California were linked to downed power lines, and residents of Paradise, Calif., recently won a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for negligence following the devastating Butte County Camp Fire in 2018.
But Pacific Power’s new policies aren’t in direct response to lawsuits against PG&E, reported OPB in a June 13 article. “Some of the tragedies we’ve experienced, like the loss of the city of Paradise and other fires we’ve seen down in California, demonstrate that we need to take active measures to protect communities and Oregonians who could be in harm’s way,” said Scott Bolton, the senior vice president of external affairs and customer solutions at Pacific Power, to OPB.
Since the announcement of its new safety measures in May, Pacific Power has held two working sessions with Hood River officials and emergency services — and Hanson said that more are to come — but Ayers still has concerns.
“We need more transparency with written plans, so we can better gauge how often (and) how high impact this could be. We are giving Pacific Power feedback, but have no control, only input,” she said.
Said County Commissioner Les Perkins, “This is the frustrating aspect of how our power market works in Oregon. We give a monopoly to an investor-owned company and have no say in how our local grid is operated or maintained. Local government has no oversight and no ability to intervene.”