RMP’s new, $10M wildfire prevention push includes policy to cut power in extreme conditions
The 2018 Camp Fire in California killed more than 85 people, left a path of destruction across 150,000 acres and laid waste to entire towns.
Investigators determined it was caused by electrical transmission lines, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company faces billions of dollars in potential liabilities. The utility filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Power lines or electricity-related incidents have caused five of the 20 deadliest fires in that state’s history, and ten of the 20 most destructive, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The utility that supplies Summit County’s energy, Rocky Mountain Power, is rolling out its first dedicated wildfire-mitigation strategy this month. It is designed to increase fire resistance and help the area avoid a similar tragedy.
The utility is committing about $10 million in new spending on preventative maintenance, technology, training and new management techniques to combat the increasing risk of deadly fires, company spokespeople said.
“We want to make sure our power lines aren’t the cause of those issues,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson Tiffany Erickson said.
One such measure is a new policy to preemptively turn off power to a transmission line when a combination of factors, including wind, humidity, temperature and dry vegetation creates a situation of extreme fire risk.
Erickson said Rocky Mountain Power expects those incidents to be rare, and said it has yet to employ the technique. But when used, it might knock out power to residents who live in those areas.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company expanded its Public Safety Power Shutoff program this year and in June, proactively turned off portions of its grid in the Sacramento area.
While the utility considers most of the western half of Summit County a “fire high consequence area,” only a couple of places in the county are slated for this new, preventive policy, shown on maps as “potential public safety power shutoff areas.” One of those areas is in Park City, and the map appears to include the southern end of Old Town, parts of the Aerie, parts of Park City Mountain Resort and the more commercial, western end of Prospector.
Rocky Mountain Power is hosting open houses around the state to explain the new program to residents who may be affected, with one scheduled on Thursday night in Park City. The utility sent out letters last week inviting those who live in the affected area. While it isn’t a public meeting, Rocky Mountain Power officials said they wouldn’t turn people away. It plans a more general public information process after locally affected residents are notified.
There is also a large potential power shutoff area around the Jordanelle Reservoir.
The shutdowns are designed to protect infrastructure, avoid causing new fires or exacerbating existing ones and to lessen the effects of unplanned power outages, but the outages may also leave residents and businesses in those areas without power.
The utility plans to keep residents informed about the potential outages, and asks customers to update their contact information on its website, rockymountainpower.net.
David Eskelsen, another Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson, said the shutoff areas aren’t in well-inhabited places, but rather near the so-called wildland-urban interface, or where growth and infrastructure has encroached on well-forested areas.
By taking the juice out of the lines when the wind is gusting, the land is dry and the temperature is high, Rocky Mountain Power hopes its infrastructure won’t contribute to a potential catastrophe.
Park City emergency manager Mike McComb said he has been kept apprised of Rocky Mountain Power’s plans and lauded the new initiative. He cautioned against misunderstanding the policy to preemptively shut down power circuits, saying the utility would consider turning off the power to these zones only “when it gets to predetermined critical levels in the highest risk areas.”
“They’re not just going to flip the switch and switch it off because it’s hot,” McComb said. “When we get into the red flag conditions – hot, dry and windy for extended periods of time – (they’ll) just be watching the conditions very closely.”
Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said power lines can spark fires in many ways, whether wind pushes the lines close enough together for electricity to spark between them, or poles get knocked over in storms with live wires hitting the ground. He said he’s seen a case where a hawk flew between lines, got zapped, then fell to the ground dead and flaming, starting a fire.
Boyer called power lines a commonality in various fires he’s worked, and said he’d already been to a few this year that were power-line related. He said he was just returning from the scene of a small fire in the Chalk Creek area that appeared to be caused by a three-stage transformer that had blown and snapped off the top of its pole.
Shutting off the power to a line that is in extreme fire risk is a last line of defense, Eskelsen said, and Rocky Mountain Power is pursuing a host of other measures. It’s clearing vegetation around infrastructure, investing in better engineered systems and has worked with the National Weather Service and the National Interagency Fire Center to improve its weather maps of the area.
Eskelsen said the utility is installing weather-monitoring equipment in new weather stations and on equipment already in the field to further localize its weather reports – instruments that measure wind speed, temperature and humidity. It’s also contracted with meteorologists and trained its field crews to read and understand the data.
Eskelsen said the devastating California fires have certainly influenced the decision to pursue this policy, but the utility is responding to a larger trend.
“I think the driving situation really has been the change in fire behavior the last four to five years,” he said. “It used to be that fires larger than, say, 5,000 acres were pretty rare. Now that isn’t particularly rare at all. … (We) recognized in this past year it’s important to take individual actions.”
Rocky Mountain Power is hosting a Wildfire Safety and Preparedness Information Session for those who live in the Park City potential public safety power shutoff area from 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22, at the Park City Library, 1255 Park Ave.
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It was an important decision since the rest of the talks will be heavily influenced by the processing option selected by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.