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Utility announces fire-prevention policies in wake of tragedies

by Erin Ross, Oregon Public Broadcasting |

PORTLAND, Ore. — As Oregon braces for another hot and dry summer, one of its biggest utility companies has announced a new wildfire policy aimed at reducing wildfire risks across their service area.

“We want to make sure ... that we’re keeping communities safe during those high-wind and dry conditions,” said Scott Bolton, the senior vice president of external affairs and customer solutions at Pacific Power.

The new policies, announced last week, include clearing vegetation around power lines and poles, increasing inspections at facilities, training their field crews in wildfire suppression, and installing local weather stations to help identify high fire risk days. They also plan to implement “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” if dangerous weather is expected in high fire risk areas. If the power is cut before the wind blows down lines, there’s less risk of fire.

Electricity providers have been under increased scrutiny since a number of wildfires in California were linked to downed power lines during windstorms, improperly maintained power stations, and areas where brush had grown too close to electrical infrastructure.

Former residents of Paradise, Calif., sued their utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), for negligence following the Camp Fire, which burned the mountain community to the ground in the fall of 2018. At the time, the utility company reported malfunctioning stations and downed lines.

Previous California wildfires were also linked to PG&E, including the Wine Country fires of 2017. Cal Fire found the utility company had failed to maintain power lines or properly remove potentially flammable brush from the nearby area, which is required by California law. There is no such law in Oregon.

Following the lawsuits, PG&E recently started implementing power shut-off during high-wind, high-heat periods. They proactively cut power to over 20,000 residents in California’s Butte and Yuba counties June 10.

Bolton said that Pacific Power’s new policy is not directly in response to the lawsuits against PG&E or the actions they’ve taken, but are instead in keeping with best practices that the industry has been discussing for a while. But the recent increase in fires prompted them to act now.

“Some of the tragedies we’ve experienced, like the loss of the city of Paradise and other fires we’ve seen down in California, demonstrate that we need to take active measures to protect communities and Oregonians who could be in harm’s way,” Bolton said.

Pacific Power serves 587,365 Oregon customer in pockets across the state, including part of Portland, the Willamette Valley, the coast, and parts of Central, Southern and Eastern Oregon, including Umatilla County. It also serves a portion of Northern California, Central Washington, and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.

Bolton said it’s unlikely Pacific Power will ever need to de-electrify their power lines, and if it does, it would likely only be in high-risk areas like Josephine, Douglas and Hood River counties. The company is working with local emergency management groups to do outreach on the subject, and to figure out how to warn residents if a shutoff seems likely.