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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Are power shutoffs coming? Avista officially shifts into fire safety mode

Damage from the Gray fire is photographed from the air above Clear Lake on Sept. 13, 2023, near Medical Lake. Avista Utilities on Wednesday shifted to “fire safety mode” as vegetation in the region begins to dry out.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Avista Utilities announced Wednesday that it has shifted into “fire safety mode” as the weather heats up and dries out vegetation that could become the fuel for the region’s next wildfire.

The move by the utility, which serves customers throughout Eastern Washington, North Idaho and parts of southern and eastern Oregon, is just the first safety measure it can take that now includes what they call “public safety power shutoff” in the most extreme cases.

Vern Malensky, Avista’s director of electrical engineering and program director for wildfire resiliency, said utility officials have been looking at advanced modeling and speaking with colleagues at the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Idaho Department of Lands about current fire risks.

“The fuel is drying out,” Malensky said. “For us, the time is appropriate to be proactive and enter fire safety mode now. As these risks escalate in the summer, we are prepared to do what we can to support our community and our customers.”

The utility’s safety conditions mostly have to do with how electrical circuits react when they lose connection, such as when a tree limb falls into a power line.

Since last fall and until Wednesday, circuits were engineered to try to reconnect multiple times if the connection is interrupted. But under fire safety mode, the number of attempts to reconnect the power is reduced, Malensky said.

Customers are not likely to see any changes in service under the first safety condition.

Under the next phase, or “extreme fire safety mode,” the circuits stop trying to reconnect the power. The plan calls for having crews visually inspect the lines to make sure something is not jeopardizing the lines before attempts to reconnect them are made, he said.

Then finally, utility managers can de-energize select portions of its grid as part of a new ”public safety power shutoff” initiative that was announced in May for the most extreme situations.

Avista spokesman David Vowels said it’s important that customers who rely on medical equipment powered by electricity contact the utility about the vulnerabilities before an emergency arises that would call for partial grid shutdowns.

“We want to make sure we have the appropriate email and phone numbers, especially for those medically vulnerable and life-support customers so we can help them through this process,” Vowels said.

The new directive follows devastation wrought by the Oregon Road fire near Elk and the Gray fire near Medical Lake that burned a combined 21,000 acres on the same day last summer and destroyed 366 homes. The Gray fire, which devastated Medical Lake and other parts of the West Plains, was caused by sparks from an Inland Power and Light security light mounted to a pole, a Department of Natural Resources investigation found.

“We need to be ready for anything, and safety is guiding our plans,” Heather Rosentrater, Avista president and chief operating officer, said earlier this year. “So, in response to the increasing risks related to wildfire in our region, as of this year, Avista is adding public-safety power shutoffs … as a tool of last resort.”

The shutoffs would be used only during summer when fire conditions become the most dangerous, and Avista would use forecasts to give alerts that start with a “watch” as much as a week out, changing to a “warning” within a couple days and an “imminent” announcement if utility mangers plan to cut power.

“It means that if we see conditions that are very extreme, we might preemptively turn off power to select areas of our system,” Rosentrater said. “This is not a decision that we take lightly.”

Avista began issuing its “Wildfire Resiliency” plan in 2020.

It included myriad changes, among them upgrading wooden poles with steel alternatives, removing vegetation and using circuits that shut down during a failure rather than continuing to push electricity through the lines after they have been compromised.

Avista’s view on using rolling blackouts evolved rather quickly. The 2020 resiliency plan mentioned the 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise, California, that burned more than 18,000 homes and killed 85 people.

“Though Avista is closely monitoring the situation in California and continues to work closely with utility peers … at this time Avista does not plan to pre-emptively shut off power to mitigate risk of wildfire,” the company wrote in May 2020.

Just three months later on September 7, 2020, limbs from a pine tree made contact with an Avista Utilities power line on the southern edge of Spokane County, apparently sparking the Babb Road Fire, which raced through nearly 15 miles of dry brush and timber during an intense windstorm, destroying the vast majority of homes in Malden and Pine City.

In the 2023 wildfire resiliency plan, company officials wrote that the utility has been reviewing how other companies have implemented the preventative blackouts.

And this spring, Avista made it official policy.

“We really want to communicate and engage with our customers,” Malensky said. “Through this communication, we have ability to take a surgical approach to minimizing customer impact with respect to public safety power shutoff.”