WENATCHEE — The Chelan County PUD is studying how power cuts have been used in California and Oregon to reduce the risk of wildfire as it develops its own proposed plan.
“The risks to our communities and the risk to our utility have grown so catastrophically that we need to do our due diligence in exploring this option,” PUD spokeswoman Rachel Hansen told commissioners this week.
The PUD has not adopted a targeted power-cut policy and the Fire Outage Management Plan is in its infancy. Commissioners told PUD staff to develop the plan over the next few months and then present their findings for consideration.
Staffers say early plans are for the cutoffs to be targeted and not broad, sweeping outages. The upper valley — including Plain, Lake Wenatchee and the Chumstick — are considered to have the highest fire danger in the county.
Extreme fire conditions — high winds and dry fuels — would be the most important factors in deciding when to cut power, Hansen said. But exactly how strong the winds and how dry the fuels would have to be before taking that action has not determined.
The idea to develop the plan began after the Labor Day fires that devastated neighboring Douglas and Okanogan counties and sparked a spot fire in Chelan.
Of primary concern for the PUD is that powerlines, if left energized, could ignite wildfires, either through high winds or an already active fire.
California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy after one of its power lines caused the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed almost 19,000 buildings.
Implementing preventative outages dates back to at least 2007 in San Diego, Hansen said. Last year in Oregon, where fires ravaged much of the state, Portland General Electric cut power to 700,000 customers.
This created a public information debacle — its website and call centers weren’t prepared for the influx of queries — but the move potentially stopped more new fires. A survey of its power lines found 140 separate instances of damaged equipment that if left energized could’ve created new spot fires, Hansen said.
It’s also not clear yet how long the outages would last, but Hansen said inspecting power lines after high winds could take longer than the actual weather event. The concern is that vegetation could be blown onto de-energized power lines that could then catch fire once power is turned on.
The tentative plan is for staffers to bring their findings to the commission in June, Hansen said.
PUD staff will first speak with emergency response agencies, like the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office and fire districts, and then with communities in high risk areas.