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BPA works with customers to respond to wildfire impacts
9/22/2020 2:00 AM
Bonneville Power Administration line crews were rapidly deployed to areas where BPA transmission and fiber customers experienced service interruptions due to devastating wildfires that swept across much of the Pacific Northwest.
Communities in Washington and western Oregon that rely on electric utilities served by the Bonneville Power Administration are beginning to recover from devastating fires fanned by easterly winds that swept through the region beginning on Labor Day.
Wildfires are not unusual in the Northwest. Indeed, several such fires were underway and being monitored across the region entering the Labor Day weekend. What is unusual was that the typical hot and dry August weather conditions were very quickly followed by a rare, early September dry wind storm with gusts as high as 70 mph, creating a scenario for extreme fire activity.
Transmission crews kick into high gear across the region
In Oregon, some residents affected by the wildfires and the Labor Day wind storm can register for
FEMA’s Individual Assistance
program. Additionally, low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration are available to homeowners, renters and businesses. Call the SBA at 1-800-659-2955 or visit
Transmission equipment in seven of BPA’s 13 transmission maintenance districts were impacted by the fires. As fires raged, field crews from 10 BPA districts assessed, monitored and worked with dispatch to de-energize and re-energize lines in response to the needs of customers and fire fighters. BPA also took one step that isn’t typical: It preemptively de-energized one line near Eugene, Oregon, in close coordination with a utility customer. Most utility preemptive shutoffs are aimed at lower-voltage distribution lines that may be near vegetation and trees. BPA’s lines generally carry higher voltages and have greater clearance from brush and trees as a result of aggressive vegetation management practices.
In all, BPA had 38 lines out of service due to the fires. Some outages were due to fire damage. Others were removed from service so fire fighters could work on or near BPA rights-of-way, or so BPA crews to safely work on them.
Two weeks later, BPA is working with two customers near Eugene that are still affected, both of which also have work to do on their systems.
“Our crews worked tirelessly in challenging conditions to repair our lines and other equipment,” said Garett Rehbein, BPA Transmission Operations and Maintenance manager. “This was an all-hands effort, and we appreciate the crews that mobilized to support their colleagues in the hardest hit areas.”
The magnitude of several fires in Oregon and Washington, and the speed at which they spread, led BPA to establish an incident management team to coordinate the agency’s response to protect and maintain the region’s power grid. Line crews were rapidly deployed to areas where BPA transmission and fiber customers experienced service interruptions. BPA uses fiber optics attached to some of its lines for operational communications. The agency also leases fiber to third parties for their use. Damage to fiber near Wenatchee, Washington, impacted BPA and nearby customers.
“I spoke directly with our customer utilities that serve communities hardest hit by these wildfires. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost their homes and property to these devastating fires,” said John Hairston, BPA acting administrator. “We continue to coordinate with our customers to repair our collective equipment, restore power and support efforts to keep people safe.”
Many BPA line crew members and other agency employees live in communities impacted by fires. They were among the thousands who either were forced to flee the fast moving fires, or spent several days prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
“Employee safety and well-being is our first priority,” said Hairston. “We knew some members of our workforce were in the path of these fires. In addition to encouraging them to follow orders issued by their local emergency management officials, our first and second line managers took steps to make direct contact and check on the safety of their own team members.”
BPA officials remain in regular contact with customers, state emergency management officials and other local entities. The agency is focused on its mission to meet the power needs of people in the Pacific Northwest, even as it prepares for more potential fire outbreaks. That preparation includes continuing to act on its Wildfire Mitigation Plan, proactively managing the vegetation on its rights-of-way, and monitoring and maintaining equipment.
"I believe our comprehensive
Wildfire Mitigation Plan
made a difference in our response efforts,” said John Lahti, BPA’s vice president for Transmission Field Services. “We have an excellent vegetation management program to proactively remove vegetation posing risks to our power line corridors. We also inspect and, if necessary, replace equipment that may be in danger of failing and starting a fire. Proactive management of BPA’s transmission rights-of-way takes time but is vital to protecting our equipment.”
As BPA mops up its restoration activities related to the wind and wildfires, it will begin to shift its focus to transmission construction and maintenance projects that had been on hold due to the agency’s COVID-19 response.
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