PSE: Planned power outages could be used to prevent wildfires

Those temporary outages are a “last resort” measure to avoid power lines and poles from igniting fires.

Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest energy utility, is alerting its users — including Vashon-Maury islanders — that it may need to proactively turn power off to deal with this summer’s and future wildfire seasons.

Those temporary outages, called Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), are a “last resort” measure when fire risk weather is extreme, PSE says, to avoid power lines and poles from igniting fires. Outages may last several days, according to PSE, and power will only be restored when it is safe to do so.

Wildfire-prone areas like parts of California are already well-acquainted with those measures.

While outages from winter storms are nothing new to Vashon or the rest of the Puget Sound area, precautionary, planned outages in the summer are a reflection of the increasing risk of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, driven in part by global climate change.

Islanders packed Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA) on May 14 for an open house to learn more about the outages, which are especially important to understand for those relying on at-home electronic medical equipment such as dialysis machines.

PSE says it will aim to provide a two-day notice before a PSPS starts, and power customers should keep their contact info up-to-date on PSE’s website. Those who use a medical device that relies on electricity should call PSE at 1-888-225-5773 to make sure PSE knows about their needs.

Power outages can occur in wildfire season for a couple other reasons, according to PSE: When emergency officials request it during an active wildfire, and when power lines automatically turn off when a potential hazard touches them. In those cases, customers will not receive advanced notice but PSE will always provide updates and estimated restoration times on its outage map.

A risk model map of PSE’s service area includes a few areas on the island, mostly on the south end of Vashon, that are considered “high risk” — areas where wildfire risk meets PSE infrastructure.

“Although many of these [medium and high risk] areas generally experience mild weather, there are pockets of dense vegetation, which, under the right conditions, could experience increased fire behavior,” a PSE spokesperson said. “These densely vegetated areas have high amounts of both ground and tree fuels, which are important factors in PSE’s risk model.”

While those areas are more likely to experience PSPS, the utility warns that all customers should be prepared.

Preparing for a PSPS

In advance: Make sure your PSE account information is up-to-date, check for updates, prepare medical needs, prepare an emergency plan and kit with your family, sign up for alerts from PSE, practice manually opening electric gates and doors, and know which natural gas appliances will keep working in a power outage.

When a PSPS is likely: Keep phones charged; stock at least three days of water, food, medicine, ice and other essentials; keep a full tank of gas and have cash on hand; test your backup power sources; unplug appliances, lights and electronics, save for one light that can indicate when power is restored; and fill containers or a bathtub with water in case water service is affected by the outage.

During a PSPS: Keep fridge and freezer doors closed. Use flashlights rather than candles. Close curtains, blinds and drapes to keep your home cool, and open windows during cooler mornings and evenings. Conserve water, and never operate a portable grill indoors. When power returns, turn appliances and electronics on one at a time, and check your fridge and freezer temperatures before eating anything from them.

Visit online for more information.

Stay fire safe

When it comes to fire risk on the island, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Matt Vinci said: “The risk of a large scale incident is, I think, low, but the potential for a smaller, localized wildfire incident is high. And we need to be prepared for the worst case scenario. So having the ability to shut down power either in a determined location, or if need be, island-wide, is important.”

VIFR is now better prepared for wildfire incidents, Vinci said, thanks to additional staffing and new, modern personal protective equipment for wildfire fighting that the entire staff now has access to.

In the meantime, everyone can take simple steps to reduce the chance of a fire starting — or worsening — in their neck of the woods.

Both VIFR and the King County Conservation District offer wildfire risk assessments at island homes. If you’d like to know how fire safe your property is — and learn a few ways to make it safer — email or visit online.

“Our message is that islanders really need to take notice of when we put out burn bans,” Vinci said. “That’s where (many) fires originate from, is the carelessness of humans. … We need to be vigilant, and prepared. We need to be doing risk reduction well prior to (when it gets) dry.”

Up high — or down low?

To boost reliability and reduce wildfire risk, PSE trims or removes some trees, replaces aging equipment, installs more sturdy overhead power lines — also known as tree wire — and sometimes puts lines underground. It’s the latter that has attracted the attention of some islanders, who say that expanding that strategy would mitigate fire risk and reduce the need to cut vegetation.

Islander Jenny Bell, chair of the Vashon-Maury Community Council’s PSE Activity Advisory Committee, is one of those residents, and she raised the idea with PSE during the VCA open house.

Undergrounding has picked up steam as a way for utilities and municipalities to vastly reduce their wildfire risk. It can also make electric systems more resilient by removing the need for poles and wires that can be struck by trees and other vegetation, or by motorists.

About 44% of Vashon’s lines already are underground, according to PSE. About half the lines on Bainbridge Island are underground. And California utility Pacific Gas & Electric is pursuing a plan to underground many of its lines after its equipment caused the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people.

But whether to underground depends on local geography, environmental concerns and the area’s overall wildfire risk, outage history and performance of existing PSE equipment, PSE said. It also requires uprooting vegetation to make sure roots don’t grow into the line, and building access vaults every quarter to half mile — the latter of which can mean PSE must acquire easements from property owners. Underground line failures are also harder and longer to fix or maintain, according to PSE.

And the upfront cost of undergrounding is formidable: About two to three times more than the cost of overhead distribution lines, according to PSE. (Long term, the financial benefits of undergrounding could outweigh those costs, especially in areas that are at high risk of fires.)

PSE undergrounds in four situations, according to the agency: As part of some residential and commercial plats or master planned developments; at the request of government entities; at the request of developers or groups of customers; and as part of its own reliability projects.

When governments, customers or developers request an undergrounding project, “those requests involve cost sharing, so the customers would take on some of the burden of the work,” according to a PSE spokesperson. “Groups of customers, or developers, can also request to relocate power lines underground at their own expense, according to PSE.

PSE’s more routine reliability projects operate under a set of rules, the spokesperson said, including Electric Tariff G Schedule 80, which states that when a party asks or requires PSE to build a project differently than PSE has proposed, then that party must pay for extra cost caused by that request or requirement.

In other words: If islanders want underground wire in places where PSE hasn’t planned to use it, they’re going to have to pay.

“If Vashon were sharing the costs of undergrounding … that fact would be considered in our prudency analysis, which is required by the (state Utilities and Transportation Commission),” according to PSE.

Property owners interested in undergrounding can reach out to PSE’s Customer Construction Services at 1-888-321-7779, and tell the responding agent that they’d like a feasibility study for undergrounding their electrical service.

From there, the agent will begin the process to create an electronic file for the request and queue the request to the project management team. A member of the project management team will reach out within five business days to discuss the request, and that project manager will be the requester’s single point of contact moving forward.

There’s another option Bell has raised: A hybrid “on ground” power line system, which involves placing power lines on or near ground level. This newer technology doesn’t require the cost or environmental disruption from the three feet of trenching that comes with undergrounding, and it also doesn’t put poles and wires in the sky where trees can knock into them.

But it may take change in Washington’s legal code for that technology to become a reality, according to PSE.

“Further evaluation of this technology for safety, reliability and adaptability is needed before PSE considers deploying (it),” according to the PSE spokesperson. “As it exists currently, the technology that Ms. Bell presented to us does not comply with Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-46B-300 Sec. 005C, which requires a minimum of 6 inches of burial cover for underground installations in an electrical raceway.”

The Beachcomber will continue to cover PSE news on the island.