Utilities, county discuss implications of shutting off power lines if fire threatens

ST. GEORGE — With three of California’s major utility companies recently announcing plans to cut power to areas impacted by fire weather conditions as a precautionary measure, emergency planners in Washington County are looking to get ahead of the possibility should it happen here.

Power lines, location and date unspecified | Photo by rex Takahashi from Pixabay, St. George News

Jason Whipple, Washington County emergency services director, said there has been some discussion about how to apply current emergency plans to preemptive power outages like those being considered in California.

According to the Times of San Diego, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and San Diego Gas & Electric launched a joint information campaign to alert their customers about the preemptive shutoffs should fire weather warnings, like red flag days, warrant it. The practice has the potential to impact up to 11 million Californians.

Power lines blown over during times of high wind in fire-prone areas had been blamed for causing some major California fires – such as last year’s Camp Fire – over the last decade.

The 2019 fire season in southwest Utah has the potential to become a heavy one, especially in elevations below 5,000 feet where cheatgrass, a highly-combustible and invasive grass, has taken root, according to state fire officials.

Read more: Fire official warns Red Cliffs Desert Reserve committee of potentially heavy fire season

However, while the California utilities are taking the preemptive measure, also known as a “public safety power shut off,” utilities serving Washington County say they would do the same as a last resort and only after certain factors come into play.

A red flag warning wouldn’t automatically trigger this,” David Eskelsen, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said.

Rocky Mountain Power is nonetheless engaged in the beginning of discussions with elected officials and others concerning “enhanced fire protection procedures” the company is implementing, he said.

“Part of what we are doing is looking at the severity and frequency of wildfires. Under certain conditions, it’s clear that wildfires are getting hotter and bigger.”

Rocky Mountain Power takes it the reliability of its system very seriously, Eskelsen said.

Still, it’s not uncommon to take a power line out of service if it is in the path of a fire, he said. The power that would go through that line is rerouted through another path feeding the affected area.

Dixie Power also has no plans on proactively shutting down power lines.

Our goal is to keep the power on 100% of the time,” said Steve Young, communications director for Dixie Power.

Both Rocky Mountain Power and Dixie Power engage in fire prevention practices around their power lines, such as removing potential fire fuels from the immediate area.

If either utility had to cut power due to a fire hazard however, the county and municipalities wouldn’t respond much differently than they would for a major outage during the summer.

The big difference with a preemptive shut off, however, is that it will be announced ahead of time. In California’s case, early warnings are sent by phone calls, text alerts, email and so forth.

As in any summertime power outage, however, regardless of cause, there is a concern for those who are more vulnerable to heat-related maladies or rely on electricity to power medical devices.

Whipple, the county’s emergency services director, said there are plans already in place but they are being modified accordingly to deal with a preemptive power cut.

Better methods of notification appear to be a large part of those modified plans.

Elements of the county’s emergency plans for a power outage include providing cooling shelters, places people can recharge electronics and coordinating with the American Red Cross and related groups.

“A lot of it is disseminating info,” Whipple said.

Before a power outage or any other emergency hits, people need to be aware of their own supplies, including water, and make sure they have enough to get through an extended period, he said.

Neighbors are also encouraged to check up on each other, especially those who are older.

Additional tips to preparing for a power outage can be found on the American Red Cross and Rocky Mountain Power websites.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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