More than 1,000 Inland Power & Light Co. customers in the West Plains lost power Wednesday morning after broken equipment required a manual reconnection to reduce wildfire risk.
While connecting power might be an automated process during cooler months the increasing threat of fires have required power companies like Inland Power and Avista Utilities to take extra precautions during the summer. The companies say the added steps will help prevent wildfires, but at the cost of more frequent and potentially longer outages for customers. That was the case Wednesday morning.
“Unfortunately, it’s the new norm with the fire season,” said Inland Power spokesman Andy Barth.
This is the second year that Inland Power has implemented a systemwide “fire safety mode,” which disables automatic reconnections and requires manual inspection from a power crew.
Power was restored in the West Plains by 11:10 a.m. on Wednesday – after a five-hour outage.
Inland Power began using its “fire safety mode” for the first time in 2021 after power companies across the West began discussing ways to prevent major wildfires, Barth said.
Other utility companies throughout the Northwest have implemented similar plans.
Inland Power started the policy on July 5 this year, which was later than expected due to cooler weather in June. The company works closely with the National Weather Service to determine when to start and stop the fire mitigation efforts, Barth said.
Under Inland Power’s plan, sections of power lines will shut down when something, such as a tree branch, contacts the lines. Typically, automatic switches known as “re-closers” will attempt to keep the power flowing after that kind of brief contact. The re-closers allow for three attempts to close the circuit outside of fire season. But in “fire safety mode,” the re-closer won’t make that attempt and the line will shut down out of an abundance of caution.
“It has the potential to cause a spark, and we want to minimize that as much as possible,” Barth said. “The whole reason we do it is to provide extra safety for those in the area.”
Inland Power’s line crews will then patrol the line and look for damages, Barth said. The crews will manually turn the power back on after any necessary repairs.
Avista enacted a similar fire safety measure known as “dry land mode” on July 20. It also disables automatic reconnection and requires manual inspection from line crews, according to a company press release from last week. Avista has employed this practice for the past two decades.
A tree branch that landed on an Avista power line is suspected of causing the Babb Road Fire in 2020, which destroyed much of Malden, according to a report from the state Department of Natural Resources.
More recently, Avista has been able to increase the sensitivity of its lines during fire season to reduce the energy flow during heightened fire threats, Avista spokeswoman Annie Gannon said.
Kootenai Electrical Cooperative implements similar measures.
Inland Power, Avista and Kootenai said they do not plan to implement complete shut-offs this summer unless fire crews need to de-energize powerlines to fight the fires.
Some utility companies, such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in California, go so far as to cut power to dry service areas to prevent wildfires.
Unlike California, Washington state does not have a law that mandates wildfire mitigation plans for utility companies.
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