Western Wildfires: Best Practices for Mitigation and Response

Aug. 24, 2019
West coast public utility commissioners shared their best practices for addressing the rapidly changing risks of wildfires during a recent all-day discussion in Portland, Oregon.

Wildfires can inflict destruction and devastation when they burn through an electric utility's service territory. The intense heat and rapidly spreading flames can not only incinerate infrastructure, but they can also lead to loss of power and even lives. 

 Before another wildfire ignites in their regions, public utility commissioners came together in Portland, Oregon, to collaborate, communicate and strategize about wildfire mitigation at the recent West Coast Utility Commissions Wildfire Dialogue. 

T&D World was able to listen in on the all-day meeting last Friday via a live Webinar. The meeting was structured in four different sections with panel discussions covering challenges and solutions surrounding climate change, system hardening, public power shut-offs and financial implications. The meeting featured a wide range of experts, who talked about not only success stories, but also lessons learned following wildfires, evacuations and power shutoffs. 

"I am so pleased to take this reprieve as an opportunity to prepare for the wildfires that we know will continue to unfold," says Oregon Commissioner Letha Tawney, who kicked off the start of the meeting. "We have a lot of experts here today, and we can engage with them in an open and transparent way."

While wildfires have been an issue for years in the West, Commissioner Tawney says the risk has increased for several reasons. For example, more people are now living in the wildland-urban interface, and to serve this growing population, utilities have added hundreds of circuit miles to affordably provide power. Compounding the challenge, human-caused climate change is also fueling a higher risk of wildfires, she says. In turn, utilities and regulators must constantly update their actions and expectations, pay attention to data and build bridges to impacted communities.

"The way we have done business in the past won't work in this new landscape," Commissioner Tawney says. "Due to the increased level of risk for wildfires, we must continue to adapt, innovate and evolve in a changing climate. The ground will keep moving underneath us, and utilities' best practices today may not work following a drought or a storm three years later. Technology is also going to change, and we need to work on delivering the power across the West."

Here are some of the highlights of the in-depth meeting, which brought together commissioners and utility executives from California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Tracking the Changing Risk
Following the introduction, Chris Danner, chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, moderated the first panel, which focused on understanding the risk of wildfires due to climate change. The experts discussed how utilities can predict what is happening and then identify and locate these risks to be able to prepare for them and respond appropriately. 

Dr. Crystal Raymond, climate adaptation specialist for the University of Washington, shared her experience helping Seattle City Light (SCL) to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Following a 2015 wildfire, SCL examined the long-lasting environmental impacts of the event. 

"The consequences are not just about the lights going off," Raymond says. "They are much more further reaching and have implications throughout a utility." 

Over the decades, fire activity across the Northwest has changed, and the length of fire seasons has increased, Raymond says. For example, in western Washington and Oregon, the fire seasons are 12 to 15 days longer than in previous years. 

"Higher fire activity is a clear recent trend we are seeing throughout the West, and climate change contributes to this problem," Raymond says. "Warmer air temperatures in combination with decreasing summer rain are setting the stage. The vegetation is drying out and allowing the fires to become bigger and have more potential to spread."

Climate change may play a part in the increased wildfire risk, but it's not the only contributing factor, she says. 

"People have a tendency to throw up their hands and say that it's just climate change, and there's nothing we can do about it," Raymond says. "Forest management is also a part of it, and we must understand how to protect people and property. If there is a buildup of fuels, we must treat the vegetation, which has a big impact on the potential of wildfires, regardless of climate change." 

Next, Dr. Christopher Dunn, research associate at Oregon State University, discussed research on quantitative risk assessments for wildfires. Through a modeling platform, he and his team have learned about fire behaviors related to the whole fire season rather than just the worst events. For example, the researchers can layer in mapping tools to generate an assessment of resources exposed to fire risks and develop mitigation actions to respond to fires and protect the landscape.

"You can isolate the hot spots where a fire can happen," Dr. Dunn says. 

Kacey KC, state forester firewarden for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Nevada Division of Forestry, then gave a Nevada perspective to the opening panel. She says while the firefighters predict that each year will be the worst year on record, not all of these potential fires will always become ignited, and Nevada can extinguish these fires before they escalate and spread with a wide array of resources. 

For example, 600 fires were reported last year through a fire information portal. The Nevada Division of Forestry installed wildfire cameras on radio and communications towers and other infrastructure to monitor the risk for wildfires. The public can view the footage 24 hours a day and report fires before they become bigger.

"It won't save us from catastrophic events, but early detection is critical," KC says. "The cameras have infrared technology so you can even flip them on at night to determine how many resources you need to send if there is a fire." 

Making Risk-Based Changes to the System
After the first panel talked about climate change, the second panel focused on different approaches and strategies for wildfire detection and mitigation. David Morton of the British Columbia Utilities Commission says last year was one of the worst on record for British Columbia in terms of wildfires. Case in point: 5,000 square miles were burnt. 

"There is a clear and present danger that we and our utilities face in British Columbia," Commissioner Morton says. "The smoke has affected air quality across Canada, and the fires have had an increasing effect on us and our utilities." 

Following Morton's introduction, Robin Furrer, vice president of transmission field services at Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), drew upon her 30 years of experience to talk about what her company is doing to proactively manage the wildfire risk. She and her team looked at two primary factors: fuel and sources of ignition. 

"Up until recent years, we sustained a fire as it came through," Furrer says. "We have taken a new perspective to look at our system and how we operate." 

For example, BPA focused on looking at the fire risk and the reduction of potential fuel. While BPA has a set standard, it assumes a non-changing environment, and it's important to look at risk factors, Furrer says. 

BPA focused on removing high-growing vegetation out of the right of ways and encouraging low-growing plants. Around the high-risk areas, BPA applied herbicide 5 ft around the structures in its transmission system. In addition, BPA asked its line crews to identify factors that can aggravate or create a wildfire situation. 

"We looked at what could drop from transmission infrastructure and cause a fire, and then we deployed crews to eradicate those from our system," Furrer says. "We uncovered high-risk areas that needed much more work over the next few years."

Next, Michael Guite, manager of sustainment planning at BC Hydro, took the audience back to the firestorms of 2003, when communities were devastated, houses were lost and a major radial transmission line went down. 

"Communities were without power for weeks on end," Guite says.

Today, BC Hydro is taking more of an integrated approach to wildfire risks through detection, modeling and system maintenance. The company is conducting overhead patrols of its overhead lines and detailed inspections of its equipment. In addition, BC Hydro is systematically removing dead, dying and leaning trees. 

Also, its field crews can check the fire danger rating on an app throughout the workday. The automated system brings in data, relates it to BC Hydro's assets and then reports the information out to field managers and operators. To protect its structures in the field, BC Hydro has tasked its line crews with installing more fire-resistant structures and using alternative materials like polymer. 

Not only BC Hydro, but also San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), has taken a proactive approach to wildfire risk mitigation. Brian D'Agostino, director, fire science and climate adaptation, says in his service territory, the environment is no stranger to wildfire.

"We have a history of fire starting in the mountains and pushing down to the coasts," D'Agostino says. 

Back in 2003, SDG&E had a fire which burnt 286,000 acres, and then four years later, 13 percent of the utility's service territory was burned in a matter of days. The company has invested close to $1.5 billion to harden the system and make it more resistant to wildfire. Also, the company deployed weather technology to understand the risk of wildfire.

In addition, the company focused on outreach to communities by installing weather stations on every circuit, partnered with universities on fire behavior modeling and built out its weather network. Another important tool was analytics. 

"It was an important step because it helped us to dodge the impacts and be able to see a fire coming," D'Agostino says. 

Rounding out the second panel, Koko Tomassian, Safety Enforcement Division, California Public Utilities Commission, reviewed the recent history of California wildfires. 

"In the past few years, we have seen some of the most devastating fires in California's history," Tomassian says. "It is clear that wildfires are larger, more intense and more costly. We need to ask if we are doing everything we can to safeguard lives and enforce regulations in a manner to improve safety." 

When thinking through the issues surrounding mitigation efforts, understanding the problems is at the core of figuring out the solutions, Tomassian says. First of all, electric utilities must prioritize effective mitigation efforts to mitigate the grave toll of wildfires, he says. Secondly, through the regulatory process, it's important to decide when and where to mitigate all potential ignition sources, which he says are not all created equal. 

"Say you have a power line that comes down in the middle of winter on top of snow," Tomassian says. "If that same power line falls after months of prolonged drought and during extreme fire conditions, and it's a recipe for disaster."

As such, he says it's important to track and monitor weather conditions and know when a system is at increased risk. Some utilities are deploying weather stations to monitor potential weather events while others are increasing inspection frequencies or investing in infrastructure hardening efforts. 

Expanding Public Safety Coordination
The next panel, moderated by Commissioner Hayley Williamson of Nevada, covered issues related to safely de-energizing a system in the midst of high fire risks. 

Anthony Noll, a lead policy expert on wildfire safety issues for the Safety Enforcement Division of the California Public Utility Commission, says public power shutoff is an interesting and complex problem that has three main components--strategy, education and communication. 

"The decision to de-energize is made at the utility level, and it is a measure of last resort," Noll says. "There are long-term factors to be considered because most systems are not designed to be turned off in these ways."

When looking at the issue of de-energization, Noll says there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Utilities must consider their geography, fuel load and system design as well as the special needs of their low-income, elderly or disabled population, who may be on life support or need to refrigerate their medications. 

To protect the public, utilities must make their customers aware of the purpose of a public safety power shut-off and know what to do in an emergency. Utilities should also notify their customers of the impending de-energization in a proper time frame so they can prepare for the power outage, Noll says. For example, they can invite their customers to register for notifications, and then make the messaging available in different languages to fit the needs of their communities. 

"They need to understand the cultural demographics of a certain area and the language requirements specific to a geographic location," Noll says. 

On average, public power safety shut-offs last 35 hours, which means that residents can't charge their cell phones or receive phone calls or texts while at home. For that reason, utilities often set up community resource centers within the affected areas to allow the customers to get information, charging capabilities and water. Also, when necessary, utilities can send an employee out to the homes of at-risk residents to notify them of the public power shutoff. 

Ronda Strauch, climate change research and adaptation advisor for SCL, described what it was like to evacuate not just one resident, but an entire small town of 150 people following a fire. Following the Goodell Creek Fire, her utility's employees had to safely evacuate families living in a small town near a hydroelectric dam. In August 2015, lightning ignited eight potential fires in the utility's watershed, and the company had to perform an evacuation. 

The fire burnt seven square miles and cost about $3 million for repairs due to damage to the distribution system including fiber optic and wood poles. In addition, SCL had to de-energize for a total of nine days. SCL rebuilt this area with fire-resistant materials like concrete and created a 10-minute safety video titled, "Escape from Diablo," to teach its customers about safe evacuation strategies. 

Along with SCL, Pacific Power has also had experience with wildfire risks and public power shutoffs. Pacific Power operates in three states with geographically different areas, and David Lucas, vice president of transmission and distribution, says today's environmental conditions have changed relative to history. 

"Power-line fires are much larger than from other causes, and the suppression is much less effective during extreme weather events," Lucas says. "This supports some of the efforts in our long-term journey to mitigate catastrophic wildfires."

Lucas says public power shutoffs are a measure of last resort, and as such, Pacific Power has focused on other strategies such as system hardening, situational awareness and the build-out of additional weather monitoring networks in California, Oregon and Washington. The utility has partnered with suppression agencies and the Oregon Department of Forestry to co-locate additional cameras on its system to provide more insight and a heightened ability to detect fires. 

"We are very optimistic about that partnership," Lucas says. 

Derek Rinn, regional manager of Network Services, then shared his experiences from FortisBC, which is just north of Washington state and has 4,500 miles of transmission and distribution lines crossing over mountainous and forested terrain. He says his company doesn't have a public power safety shutoff policy like the other presenters, but when it's not safe to stay energized, the company will de-energize its system. Currently, the company is developing parameters for temperature, humidity and wind speed. 

When looking at the issue of de-energization, he says companies must consider the adverse impact of customers not having power. 

"People are used to having power, and the reason for taking power off is because it's hot and dry, just when they need air conditioning and fans," Rinn says. "What is the impact on vulnerable populations?"

To make the best, informed decisions, companies need input from local and regional agencies and stakeholders that could be without power, Rinn says.

Managing the Financial Risks
The last panel of the day shined a spotlight on the financial impacts of wildfires. Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen of the California Public Utilities Commission, who moderated the panel, says California and other states have recently experienced some of the worst years in terms of wildfires. 

"The liabilities for wildfires can go into billions of dollars and threaten the financial health and solvency of our utilities with huge impacts to ratepayers and the public," Rechtschaffen says. "In California, we are ahead in some respects and trying a lot of things, but we have a lot of humility about what we've done and what we've learned. With every wildfire mitigation and every de-energization, we've discovered this is a learning process that will continue for many years." 

Maria Pope, president and CEO of Portland General Electric (PGE), says wildfires are a serious issue that impacts everyone. PGE, which is the largest electricity supplier in the state, is a regulated investor-owned utility, which works with large insurance companies.

In her view, Pope says prevention is the best form of mitigation when it comes to wildfires. For example, PGE takes a systematic approach to tree trimming and removal by removing dead and dying trees from its right of ways and improving the equipment and infrastructure on its system.

"Utilities are set up to deal with large risks, and we think about risks all the time in how we generate, transmit and deliver power," Pope says. "For public safety, we make sure we are prudently investing in our system." 

Richard Sedano, president and CEO of Regulatory Assistance Project, says reducing risk overall is valuable to everyone involved. While it can be expensive for utilities to reduce risk, regulators can create reserves and have the discipline to hold those reserves in the event of a disaster. 

Dave Heller, vice president Enterprise Risk Management and general auditor for Southern California Edison, predicts that if climate change gets worse over time, what has happened in California may manifest in other states. For example, during the meeting, some of the speakers mentioned "Santa Ana-like" conditions outside California. 

"As growth continues in the West, when the fires do occur, the cost will be enormous because of the population density and the increasing values of individual properties," he says. 

During his presentation, Heller highlighted the landmark legislation in California targeted at preventing fires. For example, four new agencies within California are now collectively responsible for overseeing a new wildfire fund. Also, funding has been set aside for the investor-owned utilities in California to harden their systems. 

"The last two or three years have been the worst in the state, and it has driven more expertise in the management of these issues," he says.

From an insurance perspective, wildfires are different than other climate change perils like floods and hurricanes, Heller says. If the wildfire is caused by Mother Nature, then insurance has become very good at handling it, he says. If a human being started the fire, then catastrophic bonds can come into play. 

At the conclusion of the meeting, Commissioner Tawney summarized the highlights of the day and focused on the importance of communication and collaboration. 

"The panelists made it abundantly clear the need for better partnerships outside our silos to keep our communities vibrant, economically sound and safe," Commissioner Tawney says. 

Looking ahead to the future, she says it's important for utilities to focus on providing cost-effective, reliable and safe service, and for commissions to evolve and be flexible and adaptable in a sector that prefers certainty and clarity. 

"We have adapted to a wide range of challenges," Commissioner Tawney says. "We must now figure out how to protect our customers’ interest in the long term." 

For more information, view the following photo gallery, which features a selection of slides presented during the recent meeting in Portland, Oregon. T&D World also plans to dive into the topic of wildfire mitigation in in-depth features in the magazine in the coming months. 

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