As the Oregon Legislature considers wildfire mitigation measures, Oregon electric co-ops are implementing plans to protect their communities
By Ted Case
For Billy Terry, director of operations at Philomath-based Consumers Power Inc., wildfire is not just something that worries him as he oversees the co-op’s vast utility infrastructure crossing forestland. It’s something that keeps him up at night.
As a former line crew foreman with California’s beleaguered Pacific Gas & Electric, Terry witnessed firsthand the devastation fire can unleash on rural communities.
“I’ve seen families return to their home with nothing left standing except the chimneys,” Terry said. “It’s an experience you will never forget.”
Oregon’s electric cooperatives are industry leaders when it comes to taking measures to reduce the risk of wildfires. Their proximity to state and federal forestlands has made this a priority for decades. But there is no doubt 2018’s Camp Fire—California’s most destructive and deadly blaze—has brought utility wildfire preparedness to the forefront of policy debates in Oregon’s Capitol.
“The way we have done business in the past won’t work in this new landscape, and with this new and changing level of risk,” said Leetha Tawney of Oregon Public Utilities Commission at a recent meeting on wildfire mitigation.
Gov. Kate Brown convened a governor’s council on wildfire response that looks closely at the intersection of wildfire and the electric utility industry. The Oregon Legislature likely will develop legislation based on the council’s recommendations during the 2020 February short session.
While Oregon’s electric cooperatives will be at the table for such discussions, they haven’t waited for legislation or regulations to take steps to ensure a Camp Fire-type event never occurs here.
For CPI, which has a heavily forested service territory that runs from the coast to the Cascade mountains, mitigating wildfire hazards is as fundamental as providing safe and reliable power to their members.
“The key is to have a plan, act on the plan and then review it annually,” Terry said.
CPI’s wildfire mitigation plan was developed based on information from state and local fire agencies, the PUC and internal risk analysis, as well as other industry-accepted practices. It consists of three main components: vegetation management, system hardening and system coordination.
CPI’s vegetation management plan includes hazard tree assessment and removal, and trimming and mowing in the right-of-way. Technology plays a vital role with drone patrols and lidar (light detection and ranging). While CPI also deploys helicopters to enhance its transmission line inspection, Terry believes that in extreme fire areas there is no substitute for boots on the ground.
“We’re going to increase our foot patrols of the lines prior to fire season,” he said.
System hardening—building an infrastructure that can withstand a fire—includes measures such as selective wood pole replacement with alternative materials in high fire areas as well as strategically converting overhead lines to underground.
The system coordination component is what occasionally keeps Terry and his crew up at night as they alternate 24-hour monitoring of their system during red flag warnings—conditions that are ideal for wildland fire combustion.
From their dispatch center, they rely on their SCADA system to constantly monitor CPI’s infrastructure in six counties and implement measures to mitigate any potential fire. These measures include isolating line not necessary for power delivery. CPI de-energized miles of non-critical power lines to help limit their fire exposure.
CPI’s hypervigilance about wildfire mitigation is based on its understanding of how a simple spark can race out of control.
“The Camp Fire burned the equivalent of a football field per second,” Terry said.
Some of the highest fire risk areas identified by the state of Oregon were in CPI’s service territory in the Cascade Mountains.
“It was as if they overlaid the high fire areas right on our system map,” Terry said.
One of the more controversial measures that Oregon’s electric cooperatives are not contemplating are public safety power shutoffs. In October, California’s PG&E cut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to prevent wildfires amid high winds and dry conditions in Northern California.
As Terry pointed out, if Oregon electric co-ops execute their comprehensive wildfire plans, they will not have to resort to more extreme—and potentially life-threatening—measures such as public safety power shutoffs to mitigate wildfire risks.
“Our job is to safely keep the lights on,” Terry said. “The last thing we want to do is shut them off.”