Power shutoffs may occur to reduce risks
As it has in recent years, the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) will take measures during the coming wildfire season to prevent its equipment from igniting or contributing to wildfires.
During periods of elevated fire risk, one of the principal preventive measures is altering operations so that if the flow of electricity is disrupted in a power line, power will not automatically be restored. That gives OCEC crews time to verify that power lines are free of hazards before turning the power back on.
Under normal conditions, devices called “reclosers” — which operate like circuit breakers — would automatically de-energize a power line when it experiences a fault, and then quickly “reclose” to restore power. Customers experience this as a momentary “blink” in power, said Greg Mendonca, OCEC general manager.
But when wildfire danger is high, the reclosers will be set so that power won’t be restored until OCEC determines it is safe to do so. That means customers may experience longer or more frequent power outages, but it reduces the potential for sparks from contact between power lines and vegetation, Mendonca said.
“The recloser operation is the most day-to-day impactful” mitigation measure for the cooperative’s customers, he said.
Under extreme wildfire conditions, OCEC may preemptively shut off power, a step that was taken twice last summer. In one instance power was shut off temporarily in the Wolf Creek area at the request of the Cedar Creek Fire Incident Management Team. In another instance power to the Cub Creek area was shut down at the request of Okanogan County Fire District 6, Mendonca said.
Future “fire safety shutoffs” would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration a variety of factors including red-flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service for areas that contain OCEC circuits, real-time information from staff located in areas identified as at risk of being subject to extreme weather conditions, expected impact of de-energizing circuits on essential services, potential impacts to communities and members, and direct requests from incident commanders.
Wildfire Mitigation Plan
This past spring, OCEC updated the Wildfire Mitigation Plan that describes the cooperative’s efforts to mitigate and respond to wildfire risk. The cooperative shared the information at public meetings, attended by about 20 people, in Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama. The plan is available on the OCEC website, www.ocec.coop.
The plan describes two levels of wildfire weather risk — identified as yellow (elevated) and red (red-flag warning) — and the actions to be taken by OCEC in each case.
“During elevated fire risk times or at the beginning of the fire season (which has historically extended from early summer through late fall), OCEC will alter the operation of the line reclosers that feed OCEC’s distribution system by setting them to ‘non-reclose,’” according to the mitigation plan. That means when power is interrupted, it will remain out until crews check for potential damage or fire risk.
Last year, OCEC began operating on “yellow” status in May, and continued until wildfire danger ended in the fall, Mendonca said.
During red-flag weather conditions, substations will be set to non-reclose, meaning any fault would result in outages to a larger portion of the cooperative’s system.
If circumstances require a fire safety shutoff as a preemptive measure, OCEC may request to establish a resource center at the Barn in Winthrop to assist community members who have lost power, and especially the most vulnerable people, according to the mitigation plan.
The resource center would provide members affected by power shutoffs a place to go for information, as well as access to water, snacks, ice, and cell phone charging. A resource center may not be immediately available if the fire safety shutoff is an emergency and there is no lead time to set up a resource center, the plan noted.
OCEC members should make plans for potential outages, including signing up for OCEC text messages and for the Okanogan County Emergency Management alert system, Mendonca said. People can call the cooperative or go to the website to sign up for OCEC texts, and can sign up for the county’s alert system on the Okanogan County Emergency Management website.
Generators can provide a back-up source of power during electrical outages to operate essential equipment such as well pumps, medical equipment and irrigation. OCEC’s plan advises people to contact an electrician or OCEC for more information about generators.
In addition to plans for power shutdowns, OCEC wildfire mitigation includes ongoing tree-trimming and vegetation clearing, as well as inspections of lines. The cooperative also contracts with a certified forester to periodically examine each overhead line and the surrounding forest around the lines to assess the potential fuels or hazards.
The cooperative has changed some aspects of its line design to help mitigate the potential of its facilities being involved in wildfire starts, including installing new power lines underground when feasible, and replacing fuses that can expel hot metal with newer fuses that don’t pose that risk, Mendonca said.
OCEC serves approximately 4,000 members in the town of Winthrop and Mazama, and in areas near the town of Twisp.