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Two Washington electric utilities opt out of power shut-offs to prevent wildfires in 2021

UPDATED: Tue., June 1, 2021

In downtown Malden, Washington, the former post office at lower left and another historic building at lower right still smolder Tuesday, one day after a fast-moving wildfire swept through the tiny town west of Rosalia.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
In downtown Malden, Washington, the former post office at lower left and another historic building at lower right still smolder Tuesday, one day after a fast-moving wildfire swept through the tiny town west of Rosalia. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Hal Bernton Seattle Times

Two Washington electric utilities buffeted by serious power line fires during last September’s windstorms have opted not to develop plans for public safety power shut-offs that could be used to prevent the ignition of such blazes.

During those windstorms, a fire started by a sparking Avista Corp. line destroyed 121 homes in the Malden area of Eastern Washington. Others that flared in Western Washington destroyed seven homes in an area of Pierce County served by Puget Sound Energy.

During a May 26 public meeting convened by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, officials with the two utilities outlined a range of measures for the 2021 season that includes surveillance to spot hazard trees, pole replacement and maintenance to keep branches off lines. The officials said the fire prevention measures currently in place should be enough to reduce the risks.

“Currently, public safety power shut-off is not in our tool kit,” said Dave James, who manages Avista’s wildfire resiliency program.

Dan Koch, PSE’s vice president of operations, said the majority of the utility’s service territory lies in low- to moderate-risk wildfire areas, and the company is hardening lines in the higher risk areas to make fires less likely. At least for now, the company is not considering public safety power shutdowns.

In Oregon and California, all the investor-owned utilities regulated by state utility commissions have developed such plans, as has the Portland-based Bonneville Power Administration, which operates a regional northwest transmission network.

These plans map out strategies during times of extreme risk to preemptively de-energize lines so they won’t spark if they are blown down or struck by trees. These actions are controversial, since they can leave customers without power for days on end, but have taken on increased importance as power line ignitions have been found to be the cause of some of the region’s worst fires.

In Oregon, the state Public Utility Commission informally requested in 2018 that all three of the state’s regulated power companies develop these plans. And, earlier this month, the commission issued temporary rules to regulate how they are carried out, according to Kandi Young, a commission spokeswoman.

So far, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission has chosen not to require the three regulated power companies to develop public safety power cutoff plans. And only one of these utilities — Pacific Power (PacifiCorp) — has opted to adapt one for service areas prone to wildfires.

At the May 26 meeting, the Washington commission chair praised the preparations of the state’s investor-owned power utilities.

“I know that in other states, their commissions are actually developing rules, doing a little more of what I would call — maybe this is the wrong word — micromanaging,” said David Danner, chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. “But their involvement is certainly getting more significant. So we will be having conversations about what ours should be.”

In a statement released after the meeting, a utility spokesperson said the commission has not proposed “one-size-fits-all rules, as it expects the utilities to fulfill their requirements to provide safe and reliable service.”

In Washington last year, weather forecasts in early September predicted extreme fire risk amid hot temperatures, low humidity and strong east winds. On Sept. 7- 8, at least 47 blazes were started by power lines, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data from the Department of Natural Resources and other sources, as well as interviews with fire officials in Whitman and Pierce counties.

The most damaging fire erupted in the Avista service area after a treetop from outside the utility’s right of way fell on a line. Sparks ignited brush, then winds created walls of flame that races across fields toward Malden, Whitman County.

Avista officials say that in 2021 they have a “robust plan that is appropriate for our service territory,” to prevent power line fires, according to a statement from a company spokesperson. This plan includes an expanded effort to identify and remove trees that might fall on lines and a technology that can be put into place that limits the automatic reclosing of circuits when there is a disturbance on the line such as a blown fuse. If the circuits are not reclosed, then power is shut off to the area downstream from the disturbance until the area can be inspected.

“Though it doesn’t make fire ignition risk zero, it is the lowest we can possibly achieve without preemptively de-energizing a circuit,” James said at the meeting.

PacifiCorp, however, has taken a different approach, developing a public safety power shutdown as a last-ditch option during extreme weather in an area northwest of Yakima as well as areas in Oregon and California where it provides service.

At the May 26 public hearing, a Pacific Power official said he did not anticipate the utility having to use the option this year in Washington. “But it is part of the tool kit. We do have plans. We are prepared to do it if it gets there,” said Allen Berreth, Pacific Power’s vice president of operations.

In Oregon, Pacific Power lines run through some of the areas hardest hit by September wildfires. In an area east of Salem, the company had a plan in place for public safety power shutdowns, and now is a defendant in lawsuits that cite the failure to cut off the electricity as evidence of negligence.

In a statement last fall, Drew Hanson, a PacifiCorp spokesperson, said the company does not discuss pending litigation. “We continue to work alongside our own third-party investigators to fully understand the impact of one of the biggest and far-reaching windstorms we’ve seen in our 110-year history,” Hanson said.

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