The state’s worsening wildfire seasons require unprecedented action.
While leaders in the state Legislature and Department of Natural Resources have stepped up fire suppression and prevention, the state’s utility regulator needs to do more to ensure the state’s privately owned utilities better prepare for emergency situations.
And outside of the Utilities and Transportation Commission authority are the state’s 60 public and cooperative electricity providers, which also should be required to have strategies for cutting off power in times of extreme wildfire risk, though many do not.
The UTC’s regulation of the state’s three investor-owned electricity providers puts the agency in the fire-prevention business. Power-line fires have become an immense risk. The 2020 Labor Day firestorm included 47 fires that started with electricity transmission lines. In Whitman County, on the state’s eastern edge, a blaze leveled 121 houses in Malden — 80% of the town’s residences.
Yet the UTC is failing Washington residents and businesses by not requiring private utilities to form plans for emergency cutoffs. Summer windstorms that blow dry limbs across “hot” power lines are a known hazard, often predictable. The state Department of Natural Resources counted more than 500 power-line sparked fires across the last decade, 311 from just two east side counties, Stevens and Spokane. National Weather Service-issued red flag warnings on days that are particularly dry, hot and windy offer strong risk guidance.
Washington lacks good policy for cutoffs before fires spark up. Municipal providers, public utility districts and rural electric cooperatives are on their own. Electricity cutoffs need to come with careful planning. Spontaneous disruptions to medical equipment and well-water pumps, among other essential devices, can have catastrophic consequences.
The state’s new Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Advisory Committee, which the Legislature unanimously approved Senate Bill 5158 to create this spring, should recommend that power companies, large and small, in fire-prone areas produce shutdown strategies for times of extreme risk.
The UTC needs to lead this charge and require cutoff plans from Spokane-based Avista and Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy. Both declined to draw cutoff plans, and the UTC let them get away with it. PacifiCorp, based in Portland, is the exception. Its website details which areas it serves northwest of Yakima could get public safety power shut-offs.
Regulators in Oregon and California have done better. Oregon’s Public Utility Commission informally requested cutoff plans in 2018, and the state’s three regulated power companies complied. With plans in hand, the Oregon commission developed guidelines for how the utilities should use them. California state government formally regulates the process and rightly demands transparency about shut-off decisions. The federally run Bonneville Power Administration has a preventive shut-off plan as well.
Washington’s UTC chair David Danner claimed it could be “micromanaging” to make Avista and PSE develop cutoff plans. This is a failure to learn the stark and tragic lesson of Malden.
The day that town burned, the National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning in Eastern Washington because of high winds, low humidity and summer dryness. A tree limb that fell in the wind near live Avista lines sparked the blaze, the Department of Natural Resources found.
The UTC, appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, has “protect the people of Washington” in its mission statement. The commission should acknowledge the grave risk from wildfires and call for shut-off blueprints. This work can then inform the state’s public utility providers about the right way to draw such plans, in the dire but foreseeable event they become needed.