Oregon governor meets with USFS and utilities

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek on Monday joined U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, state agency leaders, and members of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, including representatives from PGE, Pacific Power, Avista, and rural electric cooperatives for a roundtable discussion about national strategies that can support local efforts to reduce the catastrophic risk of wildfire.

“Wildfire threatens our natural areas, our homes, and even our lives,” Kotek said. “Today, we committed to expanding our coordination across large and small utilities and federal partners to help ensure that Oregon meets the highest possible standard for wildfire prevention and response.”

Oregon 2020 fires
2020 fires — Oregon State Fire Marshal photo.

Pacific Power serves much of Oregon and has suffered in court over its powerlines, fire ignitions, and legal liability for homes and property destroyed by wildifres its lines started. Simon Gutierrez with Pacific Power said the company created a “robust wildfire mitigation plan” that’s been in place since 2019, “designed to minimize the risk of our equipment potentially igniting a wildfire.”

But in the fall of 2020, with east winds picking up toward the end of a long, hot and dry summer, Mill City Fire Chief Leland Ohrt was dispatched to a home not far from his own, where a tree branch had fallen on a powerline and started a small brush fire. Ohrt, a VFD chief in a small town in western Oregon’s Cascades, hosed down the fire and then drove over to Schroeder Road, where another tree branch had fallen over another powerline and was still arcing sparks into the dry fuels below. Ohrt couldn’t stop the sparking, so he hosed the utility lines with water until they exploded and de-energized themselves.

Those two incidents initiated a frenzied 48 hours for Ohrt, acccording to an OPB report, and he was later recognized for his efforts to save Mill City as the fires destroyed thousands of homes down the Santiam Canyon and across other parts of western Oregon. Ohrt watched Pacific Power’s utility lines start those fires, but he took the stand in court in May of 2023 to defend the company in a class-action trial against Pacific Power.

Back in 2019, Governor Kate Brown recommended that utilities prepare risk-based wildfire procedures in a report on wildfire response. She then issued an executive order that  directed the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to evaluate utility protection plans, leading to Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) requirements.

Pacific Power complied, setting up a formal plan for PSPS — a temporary measure that de-energizes lines to keep people and communities safe. But as Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported, in an historic legal decision, a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury found Pacific Power (PacifiCorp) liable for around $90 million to western Oregon residents who lost homes and property after the company failed to shut down power despite multiple warnings about severe windstorms over the 2020 Labor Day holiday.

Pacific Power court exhibit
One of the exhibits at trial of the class-action suit against Pacific Power (PacifiCorp)

KTVZ News reported that the USFS met this week with Governor Kotek and utility companies to discuss mitigation since the passage of Senate Bill 762. Public safety power shut-offs are now a routine practice in Oregon, fire mitigation plans are annually submitted to the Oregon PUC for approval, and pre-fire season meetings with utilities and first responders occur annually.

A report earlier this month by the Source Weekly examined the issue of whether utility companies should shut off power to their lines during periods of high fire risk. In the wake of devastating wildfires ignited by powerlines — particularly in Oregon during the Labor Day 2020 fires and more recently in Hawai’i — utility companies must prioritize and clarify their planning for power shutoffs.

The report by Source Weekly has additional details about companies’ plans for wildfire shutoffs.