Avista would not use California blackout strategy to prevent wildfires

Source: Megan Rowe, Spokesman-Review, October 29, 2019

The wildfires in California were described to Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer as severe, and so the city of Spokane, along with Spokane Fire District 8 and Stevens County Fire District 1 sent 18 firefighters and five brush engines to help.

An estimated 2.5 million people are without power, since Pacific Gas & Electric Co. implemented blackouts to prevent downed power lines from causing fires, but the utility company acknowledged its power lines might have started two of the blazes, the Associated Press reported.

Heather Rosentrater, Avista senior vice president for Energy Delivery, said Avista is certainly watching California right now, hoping to gain valuable insights from how the wildfire is contained. But “de-energizing” is not part of Avista’s plan.

“We don’t currently have plans to implement any widespread planned outages related to wildfire, however we are looking at refreshing all of our wildfire resiliency activities,” she said.

Avista uses “dry-land mode,” seasonally changing the settings on the circuits to be more sensitive to something such as falling vegetation – which would open the circuit and de-energize it.

Erika Neff, Kootenai Electric Cooperative communications manager, said in an email that there are extreme weather conditions that would warrant disconnection, and the utility company has plans in place should those occur.

“It’s definitely an interesting time for our industry,” said Colin Willenbrock, Pend Oreille County Public Utility general manager. “I think there’s a lot of entities that are watching California, and how they manage their situation. But we’ve been no stranger to fire liability in our neck of the woods for quite some time.”

Willenbrock said Pend Oreille County Public Utility chose to bring its vegetation management program in-house a decade ago and use that team to employ preventative strategies.

The Department of Natural Resources is suing Avista for firefighting costs for the 2018 Boyds Fire in Ferry County, the Chewelah Independent reported. Represented by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, DNR contended Avista was not properly maintaining a tree near a powerline.

Rosentrater said she could not comment on the lawsuit, but that “in our total plan that we’re reviewing right now, related to our wildfire resiliency, the vegetation management is a key piece of that overall.”

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