PORTLAND, Ore. — Power companies are on high alert heading into the weekend as strong winds and hot, dry weather create extreme wildfire danger across western Oregon.
Back in April, PGE announced plans for potential power shutoffs to prevent wildfires, in addition to spending tens of millions of dollars to keep branches away from power lines. After all, a single broken branch could short out a power line, sending a spark into the air and igniting a disastrous blaze.
On Friday, the utility put the plan in place, cutting power to more than 30,000 customers, many of whom live on the outskirts of the Portland metro area. Other affected areas include the Columbia River Gorge and rural parts of the Willamette Valley.
Pacific Power said more than 12,000 customers could be in the dark between Friday and Saturday in Linn, Douglas, Lincoln, Tillamook, Marion and Polk counties.
It's the first time Oregon power companies have shut off electricity for such a wide area to help prevent wildfires. As you might expect, the rollout wasn't perfect.
Some customers got warnings that their power would be shut off even though they were outside of the shut-off areas.
Liz Malliris, a resident of northwest Newberg, said they got three alerts Thursday and had to call customer service to figure out she was outside the affected area.
"I was reasonably assured I wasn't going to have a power outage. But just in case, I watered everything because as with most rural people that are in these areas, I'm on a well. I have a well pump. It's run by electricity. And if you have farm animals, you have pets — never mind the AC issue — water is kind of what its about," said Malliris. "I do have a generator, as many people do, but again, that's a whole other thing getting that started up. So it's no small thing to have a power outage. It's not like you just say, OK, I'll go to a hotel. So you don't want to alarm people unnecessarily."
She found the planned power outage maps put out by PGE confusing and unsettling, saying these warnings brought back frightening memories of the Labor Day fires that broke out two years ago.
"Admittedly I have a little bit of PTSD from September 2020 because I was one road away from evacuation from the Chehalem Mountain fire, and that was terrifying. Much more terrifying for the people who did have to evacuate, but for those of us who were on the cusp — I mean you go from room to room and figure out, what can I get in my car? What do I need to take? And what am I willing to completely lose? So that heightened sensitivity makes me both appreciate and be somewhat scathing of this effort," said Malliris.
So how did Oregon get to the point of having planned power shutoffs?
In 2021, the state legislature required power companies to identify high-risk fire areas and establish plans to prevent their power lines from sparking fires. '
Before that legislation was passed, PGE only had one high-risk fire zone in the state, which stretched from the town of Sandy east to Mount Hood. PGE cut power to that area during a hot wind storm in early September 2020, and there were no fires in that zone. But further south, the same wind storm fueled the massive Beachie Creek Fire, which claimed five people's lives and hundreds of structures as it burned across thousands of acres of land.
A class-action lawsuit accused Pacific Power of playing a role in that blaze, arguing some of its power lines added to the fire because there was no planned outage.
After the legislature took action last year, PGE added nine more high-risk fire zones, which include parts of the Columbia Gorge, Estacada, Oregon City, Scotts Mills, the Tualatin Mountains and Portland's West Hills.
Pacific Power identified 13, including urban and rural parts of Hood River and Medford.
Bill Messner, PGE's director of wildfire mitigation and resiliency, said millions of dollars are being spent to keep tree branches away from power lines, and work is underway to protect older wires that are more prone to spark a fire. But it's not a fast process.
"There is bare conductor and there is covered wire we call 'tree wire,' and that is an insulation around the wire," said Messner.
He said the older power lines don't have any special covering, so the plan is to add that covering in high-risk areas.
PGE has remote weather stations in each high-risk fire zone to get constant updates on conditions in each locations. The company has meteorologists and fire experts monitoring those conditions from a new multi-million dollar facility in the Portland area. Operators can kill the power to specific locations from that facility with the push of a button.
PGE said assuming their systems aren't damaged by the wind this weekend, power restoration will begin Sunday morning and could be back up and running for everyone by Monday night.