Utilities cut power as wind-whipped blazes sweep the West

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2020

An Oregon utility this week for the first time ever shut off electricity to some of its customers to prevent wildfires, as blazes burn up and down the West Coast.

Portland General Electric in Oregon starting Monday evening disconnected lines serving about 5,000 households, said utility spokesman Steve Corson. Those customers live near Mount Hood, about 100 miles east of Portland.

“The convergence of extreme factors going into the weather report this week made it clear that we were going to have an extraordinary situation, and that as a matter of safety we needed to implement this action,” Corson said.

Those factors included wind gusts of up to 60 mph, with vegetation dried out from high summer temperatures.

It came as dozens of fires burned throughout the Beaver State yesterday, turning daytime skies red in many places and triggering sometimes frantic evacuations.

The Oregon customers are expected to be without power potentially through the weekend, Corson said. The utility is waiting for weather conditions to improve, and then needs to inspect the region for downed power lines. The county has set up resource centers with water, snacks and places to charge electronics, he said.

The Oregon shut-off came as utilities in California also imposed blackouts on small groups of customers. Los Angeles County-based Southern California Edison yesterday cut power in blackouts that affected 135 households and businesses in LA County and 117 in Ventura County.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. said yesterday it turned off juice overnight to 49 households and businesses in communities about 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. Power was restored to some of those customers by 7:30 a.m. local time yesterday.

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is restoring electricity to 172,000 households and businesses in 22 counties. Those customers were intentionally blacked out as a fire prevention tool starting Monday evening. It took place at the end of a holiday weekend that saw a record-breaking heat wave in California, and the threat of rolling blackouts due to electricity supply shortages (Climatewire, Sept. 8).

PG&E said wind gusts proved to be very strong during the power shut-off period, up to 66 mph in some areas. So far it’s found 27 cases of damage including trees down and a branch lying on wires. Those could have created sparking events that ignited fires, said Mark Quinlan, PG&E incident commander for the shut-offs. During a briefing yesterday he also said PG&E found no evidence that any of its equipment has started new fires.

The utility aimed to get power flowing to the majority of disconnected customers by the end of the day yesterday. Quinlan said roughly 4,000 in the Butte County and Humboldt County areas could be out through about noon local time today.

The skies in many parts of Northern California turned shades of orange yesterday from the multiple large fires burning.

The Portland utility about a year ago started work on a wildfire mitigation plan to boost earlier efforts, Corson said. Portland General Electric was aware that utilities in California have been using electricity shut-offs for years as a wildfire prevention strategy.

“Many of us in the industry and particularly here in the West have watched what’s happened in California in recent years,” Corson said. At the same time, he said, “it’s not just that Oregon looked south to California and figured out that we need to plan for this.” Rather, there was “broad awareness in the industry” that wildfire risk is growing.

“We’ve all recognized that the standard operating procedures of the past were not going to be sufficient going into the future,” he said.