Dam Safety, Environmental, News, North America

Utilities update on status during western U.S. wildfires

Electric utilities in the western U.S. are dealing with significant impacts due to wildfires raging in the region, with 87 large fires having burned more than 4.6 million acres in 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Several utilities have released updates, including PacifiCorp, the California Department of Water Resources, Pacific Gas & Electric and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Actions they have taken include closing recreation and public access lands, working to keep personnel and the public safe, and restoring power to affected areas.

PacifiCorp announced it has closed all access to its properties in the Lewis River basin in southwest Washington until further notice, citing the current fire danger and nearby firefighting activity. The utility said the primary concern is for the safety of employees, contractors and all who enjoy using the properties. The closure will remain in effect until the fire hazard conditions improve.

Also on Sept. 11, California DWR reported that the Bear Fire, ignited Aug. 17 by lightning strikes, has merged with another lightning-sparked fire near Quincy and is now known as the North Complex Fire. The Bear Fire portion in Butte County has burned more than 70,000 acres with 5% containment as of Sept. 11, and communities around Lake Oroville have been severely damaged, along with several Lake Oroville State Recreation Area facilities. Due to continuing fire behavior, all of these facilities are closed.

California DWR said there were no current risks to Oroville Dam or its related structures. DWR said it continues to monitor the fire’s status and is working with CALFIRE, local law enforcement partners, and California State Parks staff to ensure employee and public safety. DWR’s water delivery and other critical operations are ongoing with essential staff on site.

PG&E reported on Sept. 10 that it has restored power to essentially all customers who can receive service and were impacted by the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event that started Sept. 7. PG&E uses a PSPS only as the last resort to protect community and customer safety against wildfires, given dry and windy weather, dry vegetation and an elevated fire risk across portions of its service area.

The PSPS event affected nearly 172,000 customers in 22 counties. Once the weather “all clear” was given, PG&E crews began patrols on the ground on Sept. 9 to inspect more than 9,880 miles of transmission and distribution power lines for damage or hazards. Smoky and hazy skies have delayed or paused some PG&E air patrols. Ground patrols faced challenging terrain in some areas where air patrols were grounded due to smoke.

About 6,800 customers in Butte, Humboldt, Plumas, Trinity and Yuba counties are unable to receive power due to two factors: ongoing threats from wildfires and requests from first responders to keep power lines de-energized for assisting firefighting efforts and to keep firefighters safe.

And finally, the Corps’ Portland District announced Sept. 9 it had closed all of the recreation areas it manages near its dams due to “multiple fires burning throughout the Willamette Valley.”

“The Corps’ primary concern is maintaining safe operations for our people and critical infrastructure,” a press release said. The district will continue to staff facilities and project sites if it is safe to do so to ensure power production, water outflows and recreation opportunities.