Wildfires, Electricity—and the Central Coast

You remember the terrible stories and haunting images of just last year; California communities devastated by catastrophic wildfires. And, as you likely know, some of those fires were caused by high winds, drought-like conditions and arcing electrical lines. Here at Central Lincoln we’ve been working to strongly reduce that sort of fire risk, going back almost to when we started offering power more than 75 years ago. While we can’t promise we’ll never shut off power due to extreme fire conditions, we’ve been taking steps for years to minimize the possibility.

Of course, there are some differences between the Oregon Coast and California. Our high winds usually hit in winter, when conditions are wet. Yet, we don’t take potential fire risk lightly—even on the Oregon Coast we certainly do get some dry summers. In August of 2016, a fire east of Depoe Bay burned over 200 acres. Admittedly it was a small fire, but it illustrates the risk is there, as many of our power lines cross through forested areas. And, of course, trees and branches coming into contact with our lines increases the risk of fires. Accordingly, we are constantly trimming trees and vegetation around our poles and lines with full-time, year-round, in-house crews. Every summer we also contract with tree management companies for additional trimming help. We understand that it is of extreme importance that we maintain line clearance from trees and vegetation in these rights of way throughout the entire district and to maintain the structural integrity of our power lines. By doing so, not only do we protect the area we love and call home, but we also reduce the risk of outages, thereby guaranteeing a much greater reliability of service to our customers.

The events in California have led to heightened awareness about wildfires at the state level. Our General Manager, Randy Grove, has agreed to serve on the Governor’s Wildfire Response Council to help develop wildfire mitigation plans. And, we’ve met with staff of Portland General Electric and Pacific Power to discuss their wildfire mitigation planning as well. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) notifies us of logging operations along our transmission lines so we can interact with those companies. We also follow ODF’s industrial fire precaution levels which are quite stringent when forest conditions are dry. We are planning to participate in “AlertWildfire,” a system of cameras placed at high mountaintop points and/or on microwave towers offering better forest visibility and hopefully faster response to wildfires to get them under control more quickly.

Central Lincoln has close relationships with most of the many fire departments serving our service area, which includes ten cities, and parts of four counties. We recently participated in a wildfire “tabletop” exercise with Lincoln County’s emergency services personnel, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and regional fire districts.

Internally, Central Lincoln has an interdepartmental team to monitor wildfire-related issues. We have redundant lines to reroute power in case we need to do so. And we perform thorough transmission line inspections regularly.

To paraphrase Smokey the Bear: ‘All of us can prevent wildfires.’ We’re doing our part, and we encourage you to call emergency personnel if you see unattended or illegal fires in our forests, or contact us if you see potential hazards around our lines.

Written by Central Lincoln Board President, Keith Tymchuk, for the August 2019 issue of Boardlines