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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Avista not planning utility shut offs for this year’s wildfire season

OLYMPIA – Avista is not planning utility shut-offs this summer to prevent the spread of wildfires, unless there is a “catastrophic event.”

Avista wildfire resiliency manager David James said the company was not planning to implement public safety power shut offs in 2022 unless firefighters need to de-energize to fight the fires. A catastrophic event could be a firestorm with 60 or 70 miles per hour winds, but James said even in that case, there would be significant discussion before shut-offs happen.

“We believe that there is a place for de-energization when we’re faced with a catastrophic event,” James said. “We’re still working through those details.”

Utility companies last week shared their plans for identifying and mitigating wildfire risk with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. The commission this year required the three regulated utility companies in the state – Avista, PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy – to submit wildfire plans, including how they would reduce wildfire risk and how they plan to communicate with customers and emergency response agencies.

“Our continued review and discussion about how our three regulated utilities are preparing for wildfires is really critical, especially because the potential for impact to the utility grids and the potential for ignition from the utility grids,” Commissioner Ann Rendahl said.

Eastern Washington is preparing for another dry summer season, which could exacerbate wildfire conditions. As of April 19, much of Eastern Washington was in at least a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Parts of Central Washington, including Benton, Yakima, Kittitas, Grant, Adams and Lincoln counties, are currently in an extreme drought.

Extreme drought conditions mean unprecedented wildfires could occur, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

During wind storms, some electric companies, such as Pacific Gas & Electric in California, cut power to dry service areas to prevent wildfires. Last year, Avista also told the utilities commission it was not planning any public safety power shutoffs. It could de-energize to assist in firefighting, but at the time, no shutoffs were planned.

A Department of Natural Resources report from May 2021 found the Babb Road Fire, which destroyed Malden, started when a tree branch fell into Avista power lines. The tree was diseased, damaged and infested with insects.

More than a dozen insurance companies covering more than 40 Malden and Pine City residents are suing Avista to recover insurance payouts from the wildfire. The lawsuit says Avista should have de-energized power lines in high-risk areas prior to the fire igniting.

As part of its wildfire resiliency plan, Avista says it will inspect 100% of its transmission and distribution grids, adding up to about 10,000 miles of line. So far this year, about 40% of the distribution system and 5% of the transmission system have been inspected, James said. Much of the transmission system is difficult to get to until snow melts, he said.

The resiliency plan also looks to move “risk trees,” or anything dead, dying or diseased that can strike a distribution line, James told the utilities commission.

So far this year, it’s removed more than 4,416 trees, James said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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