Manager’s Message — June 2021
Wasco Electric Cooperative (WEC) has undertaken comprehensive efforts for the past year to develop and formalize its wildfire mitigation plan. The plan will have ongoing review as environmental conditions change and infrastructure and regulatory requirements shift.
More than 5 million acres burned in California, Oregon, and Washington in 2020, making it the most active fire year on record for the West Coast. In Oregon, extreme windstorms instigated catastrophic wildfires that burned more than 1.5 million acres, taking human life and destroying thousands of homes. Last year’s wildfires put an exclamation point on a decade in which the West experienced its deadliest and most extensive wildfires in history.
In California, investor-owned utilities came under intense public scrutiny and state legislative oversight. As a result, California’s governor signed a bill into law in 2018 requiring every electric utility to prepare a wildfire mitigation plan. This was one of many legislative attempts to promote wildfire safety and accountability.
Oregon public utilities and cooperatives are not yet legislatively mandated to file a plan with the Oregon Public Utilities Commission. That could change this year because there is a wildfire legislative proposal with such a provision. Gov. Kate Brown supports the measure and likely will sign it into law if the state Legislature approves.
Whether required or not, WEC believes developing a thorough plan is prudent and responsible. WEC’s plan takes an active and comprehensive approach tailored for our five-county service territory with the ultimate objective to minimize risk of WEC’s assets as the origin or contributing factor in a wildfire’s ignition. Goals and metrics measure effectiveness while allowing for retooling and improving the plan as practices evolve to adopt new technologies when available and feasible, and further system hardening of our infrastructure continues.
One topic that has gotten a lot of public attention is the use of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Some utilities in the West have implemented these shutoffs to reduce wildfire threat. A PSPS may occur when the National Weather Service issues severe weather warnings for events such as extremely high winds. A recent example was last Labor Day, when the weather service warned of winds reaching 70 miles per hour on the west side of the Cascades.
Thankfully, WEC has never had to turn off power to any of its communities under such circumstances. However, there may come a time when such action is required, especially as we head further into future fire seasons. It’s an extremely difficult decision for a utility to decide to shut off power and one we wouldn’t take lightly, but safety remains our Number 1 priority.
We can anticipate, plan and prepare for the unexpected. With safety as our highest priority, WEC continues to take constructive steps toward mitigating the threat of wildfires in the communities where we live and serve.