What Is Chelan PUD’s Plan To Help Prevent Wildfires?
In light of the horrific tragedy in Maui and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Ca. you may be wondering could the unthinkable ever happen here and what precautions does Chelan PUD have in place to guard against a similar tragedy.
In both fires, the fire's connection to high winds, dry conditions and energized powerlines was the impetus for a discussion with Chelan PUD Commissioner Garry Arseneault and the PUD's Communication Specialist Rachel Hansen.
WHAT PROMPTED THE WILDFIRE MITIGATION STRATEGY?
Hansen has been involved with Chelan PUD's Wildfire Mitigation planning team. Hansen says the Camp Fire changed the mindset among West Coast utilities The PUD reached out to State Emergency Management, local fire district and county emergency management officials to begin conversations about the kinds of circumstances to shut off power to prevent the electrical grid from sparking and causing a fire. "We work very closely with them to try to kind of pinpoint where are our highest risk areas are, what are some of the the wind speeds that we need to be really careful about".
Working with the other agencies to gather all the weather data from a half dozen weather stations gives the PUD data needed to monitor weather patterns 24/7
"We're were looking at wind speed and fuel moisture and our fire districts and emergency personnel they helped us figure out what are the conditions that would lead to a fire that would escape initial attack, meaning one that could not be contained with just local fire district resources" according to Hansen.
The PUD then created the thresholds that would factor into a decision about whether to cut the power. The call can be a difficult one to make, people need electricity for their well pumps or medical devices. The consequences of not turning off the power could be catastrophic if it contributes to sparking conditions and a wildfire. It can be a matter of life and death. Hansen says the decision is a difficult one. "We have not had to make it yet but we have all the protocols in place to do so".
The portions of Chelan County identified in a designated fire safety outage area include Lake Wenatchee, Plain, and Stevens Pass. "We've talked a lot with the community and remind them every spring that it is possible these conditions of high winds and dry fuels might lead to a 24 to 36 hour outage. If we start to see those conditions in the forecast, we'll try to notify everybody in every way possible at least 48 hours in advance".
CHELAN PUD'S WILDFIRE MITIGATION STRATEGY
Hansen says the PUD's wildfire mitigation plan included risk assessments for the distribution and transmission systems.
The PUD distribution system is the network of neighborhood power lines and the transmission system is the high voltage lines that deliver power from the dams to communities.
Hansen says assessments found about 15% of the overhead distribution system was considered a high risk for fire danger, while 2% PUD transmission lines were at high risk.
The Chelan County terrain presents some diverse challenges from heavy timber, to grasslands and shrub steppe areas.
"So what's in our wildfire mitigation plan is very place based so that addresses the risk in different parts of the county" according to Hansen.
The proactive steps include increased inspections, tree trimming and brush Chelan PUD employs three full time arborists that inspect and manage the vegetation along more than 900 miles of distribution lines and 300 miles of transmission lines in Chelan County. Hansen says the PUD has doubled it's tree-trimming budget and is now spending $3 million annually to keep vegetation away from power lines..
Chelan PUD is applying fire retardant treatment to wooden poles and replacing them with steel poles in some areas. To combat the threat of sparking from overhead lines in high wind conditions, Hansen says Chelan PUD's wildfire mitigation strategy calls for putting power lines underground where it's feasible.
The last resort, Hansen explains is a fire safety outage where if certain conditions develop; very high winds, dry fuels, low humidity, and the location, those are the factors where the General Manager would make the decision if temporarily turning off power is the right thing to do.
PUD Commissioner Gary Arseneault said the PUD is typically responsible for the area below a power line. Most transmission lines have an easement corridor. Within that corridor, the PUD has access to the vegetation below the lines and on either side of the line. He says there is interest in expanding that corridor on either side of the line to account for the growth of trees and encroachment towards transmission lines. "We're concerned about more outages so we are working with legislators to see if we can get that corridor widened".
Arseneault says the PUD and the Board of Commissioners perspective has shifted in those areas that are designated high fire risk "in years past, the the PUD and the board really prided themselves and one of the metrics that we measured our success on was the uninterrupted period of time that we delivered power. And so we were always striving for towards that 100% No downtime. Everybody had power. That that logic now has changed".
In the aftermath of devastating wildfires elsewhere, Chelan PUD is modifying it's use of a reclosure device. The device helps get power back on quickly and Arseneault explains if a squirrel runs up a pole and triggers a fault. within a few seconds, that reclosure device tests tests the line and re-energized the line. Under the mitigation strategy in high wildfire risk areas, those reclose your devices have been disabled. The device will trigger if there is a short on the line, just like a breaker at home, but the line will not be re energized until PUD crews can inspect the location to verify that there's not any factors that would cause a fire.
HOW OFTEN WOULD CHELAN PUD HAVE TO SHUT OFF POWER?
Before the PUD implemented the policy, Hansen said the district studied what would prompt a power shutoff in advance of a significant wind event. Compiling the hourly data from all the weather stations around Chelan County, fuel conditions wind gusts and humidity, the PUD found the fire safety outages would have been necessary only once in the last seven years. Hansen says that was the night that Carlton complex blew up and burned the town of Pateros. "So the kinds of events that I'm talking about where we might decide to proactively turn off power, do happen here. They don't happen very often".
Arseneault thinks wildfire prevention is a partnership "it starts really with the landowner, the property owner, but understand that you're partners in this with with the PUD, and with the county commissioners and everyone really wants the same thing. They want fire prevention. Hilary Franz from Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner of Public Lands has been putting a lot more money in our budget towards firefighting equipment and doing a lot of thinning".
CASCADIA CONSERVATION DISTRICT OFFERS FREE ASSISTANCE
Cascadia Conservation District (CCD) forestry manager, Joe Hill says the organization is celebrating it's 75th year serving private landowners in Chelan County. Hill's work is in forestry and wildfire resilience but Cascadia assists in a variety of sectors from agricultural and orchard efficiencies to soil health and riparian management.
Cascadia can assist neighbors create a Firewise community and helps them develop strategies to protect their neighborhood collectively or just with an individual homeowner. By providing free home risk assessments identifying any vulnerabilities where embers or fire could compromise that structure or scale if their neighbors are interested in working towards the same goals of reducing that wildfire risk. Hill says "Getting homeowners on the same page and then also being eligible for some funding opportunities to help pay for that. That mitigation work which isn't always the cheapest thing".
Hill says property owners with acreage should remember it's important to potentially thin brush and restore that forest. "And that's something that we can help with. We've got a variety of cost share options that we direct people to either through our own cost share or we're working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Department of Natural Resources specifically in the Leavenworth, Lake Wenatchee area". Hill says CCD is trying to secure more more funding for residents all over all over the county.
Hill's best tips for protecting your home from a wildfire;
- cleaning out gutters
- don't store firewood or lumber close to the house where it could catch embers and spread fire to the house.
- vent screening should be less than 1/8th of an inch mesh to block embers
Hill says the biggest reluctance many people have to considering Firewise practices is the misconception they have to cut everything down. "And that's definitely not the case. You know, it's like you probably do need to cut some stuff you need to thin and prune but strategically you can balance those aesthetics".
For more information on Firewise communities and protecting your property, visit the Cascadia Conservation District website
To look at the Chelan PUD's Wildfire Mitigation Program, click here
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Gallery Credit: AJ Brewster