Tree trimming, other measures part of response plans
To decrease wildfire risk, utilities across the state are intensifying vegetation management guidelines and inspecting powerlines for anomalies.
The Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) is considering stronger measures, including a preventive power shutoff under extreme wildfire conditions.
For several years during wildfire season, OCEC has had a policy that turns off automatic switches, called reclosers, so that if something get in the lines, creates a fault, and operates the switch, the power would be off until crews can verify that the line is clear of hazards, OCEC General Manager David Gottula said.
The reclosers, which function like circuit breakers, typically work automatically to de-energize the powerline and then quickly “reclose” to try to keep the power on. If the fault is permanent, the power will stay off until crews find the problem. Under normal circumstances, the reclosers reset quickly, causing just a momentary “blink” in power, Gottula said.
But during red-flag conditions, OCEC sets the reclosers so that they can’t automatically restore power until an OCEC crew member manually inspects the line to verify that there aren’t any problems, he said.
There are about 42 reclosers in the OCEC network. To accommodate the manual inspections during red flag conditions, outages can be more frequent and last longer.
At their May meeting, the OCEC board will consider additional provisions that would allow the co-op to shut off all power under severe fire conditions to prevent a powerline from starting a wildfire. These shutoffs have become commonplace in California, according to Gottula.
These fire-safety shutoffs would be used only during a critical wildfire danger, such as a red-flag warning with severely dry conditions and forecasted high winds, Gottula said. In his 10 years with OCEC, the utility never experienced the conditions that would necessitate a shutoff, but wants to be prepared. The shutoffs are most likely to be used in forested areas like the Twisp River, upper Chewuch River and Mazama, he said.
OCEC has also focused on tree-trimming, making sure that any trees within its easement – generally 10 to 15 feet wide – are pruned so that branches can’t contact powerlines. In addition, every two years, OCEC’s contract forester evaluates all overhead lines and potentially hazardous trees on private property outside of easements to encourage landowners to remove or trim their trees, Gottula said.
A little more than half of the powerlines in OCEC’s 376-mile network are buried, but all lines are fed by overhead wires, Gottula said.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) has been focusing on tree-trimming with an aggressive vegetation-management policy, PUD Community Relations Coordinator Sheila Corson said.
The PUD cuts trees on a three-year cycle. The utility has been using such comprehensive measures to keep vegetation away from powerlines for longer than most utilities, Corson said. “That’s our main preventive measure for outages,” she said.
The PUD is always looking at ways to bolster wildfire prevention and mitigation. The utility has considered reclosure and power shutoff policies, but has to weigh whether such steps could inadvertently increase wildfire risk by preventing irrigators from watering, she said.
The PUD has been working closely with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on fire mitigation. PUD crew members now get fire-safety training along with DNR and other agency firefighters to ensure better coordination and communication, Corson said.
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) issued its own wildfire-mitigation plan last year. The plan lays out how BPA will keep its lines and other equipment from starting fires and how the agency will operate when fires burn near their equipment, they said in a summary.
“This multi-pronged plan leverages our leading class vegetation management program …. The goal is not to have BPA equipment cause a wildfire,” said Jeff Cook, BPA’s vice president of transmission planning and asset management.
BPA has focused primarily on vegetation management and regular infrastructure patrols to identify equipment that could possibly fail and start a wildfire.
But this year, BPA is also considering power shutoffs during extreme wildfire conditions. BPA surveyed its system to identify transmission lines at the highest risk of being shut down in a public-safety power shutoff, focusing on the lower-voltage system. The agency is working with their meteorology staff on triggers for a power shutoff.
BPA plans to release a list of the lines at highest risk for a shutoff by the end of May. But the agency advised that none of its transmission lines is exempt from having power turned off in an emergency. The BPA supplies power to both the PUD and OCEC.
OCEC Twisp River Fire settlement
At its annual meeting last month, OCEC staff briefed members about the $15-million settlement reached in January 2020 in lawsuits over the 2015 Twisp River Fire.
The settlement included $5 million for firefighter Daniel Lyon, who was severely burned in the blaze. The settlement also resolved claims by federal and state agencies for fire-suppression costs and by property owners and insurers for their losses, who shared almost $10 million in the consolidated lawsuit.
A 2016 investigation by DNR determined that OCEC hadn’t followed its own policy for maintaining vegetation under a powerline. That allowed the trees to grow so tall that they came into contact with thew powerline, creating sparks and starting the blaze, DNR concluded. OCEC has denied liability for the fire.
Be prepared for possible outages
Be prepared for possible outages
People who rely on electricity because of a medical condition need to make arrangements for power during an emergency.
In the future, the Okanogan County Electric Co-operative (OCEC) plans to set up a resource center at the Winthrop Barn in the event of a power shutoff, but that won’t start this year because of COVID restrictions.
OCEC customers should sign up to be notified by text message or email in case conditions necessitate a shutoff. Call 996-2228 or go to the OCEC website at https://ocec.coop to sign up.
Okanogan County Emergency Management alerts will also include power shutoffs. To sign up for those alerts (which also cover emergencies involving wildfire, floods and road closures), go to www.okanogandem.org.
The OCEC board will consider the fire-safety shutoffs on Monday, May 24, at 3 p.m. Remote log-in information is on the co-op’s website.