Reviewing EWEB’s Sept. 9-11 Public Safety Power Shut-off 09/15/2022

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for the Willamette Valley, predicting high winds from the east along with high temperatures and low humidity – conditions that could easily contribute to a wildfire’s spread.  

EWEB activated our Incident Command System to assess, prepare and coordinate with local agencies and neighboring utilities. By Thursday evening, EWEB announced our first Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) for approximately 3,000 customers in the McKenzie Valley service territory, auto-dialing affected customers, sending emails, contacting local media outlets, posting on social media, and coordinating with Lane County Emergency Management to notify the public about this plan. 

For public safety reasons due to severe weather forecasts, EWEB elected to preemptively deenergize more than 100 miles of line from Camp Creek to Vida, as well as approximately 100 miles of transmission line running from our Carmen Smith hydroelectric project. 

“This decision was not made lightly,” said Tyler Nice, EWEB electric operations manager. “We weighed many factors and carefully considered all elements of a PSPS, including planning, operations, logistics, and critical community impacts to ensure safety for customers, community, and staff. We also partnered with local Lane County Emergency Management and upriver emergency response to ensure we understood how this would affect their operations.”   

The extreme fire weather forecasts coincided with the two-year anniversary of the devastating Holiday Farm Fire of 2020. The eerie similarities heightened the sense of danger, especially for communities that lost so much.  

A PSPS is just one tool that EWEB is using to reduce fire risk. This year, we adopted a wildfire mitigation plan, improving upon the numerous programs EWEB has in place for grid reliability and safety. The plan includes protocols for initiating Protective Settings Mode, which make power lines more sensitive, and PSPS. A PSPS is an operational practice used by utilities in California, Oregon, and Washington to shut off power in high-risk fire areas to prevent electrical equipment from contributing to a fire during extreme and potentially dangerous weather conditions. This was the first time since EWEB adopted a wildfire mitigation plan that forecasted and observed the conditions that met the criteria for a PSPS.   

EWEB, in coordination with other utilities, made the decision to activate a pre-emptive safety shutoff on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. and we were able to safely restore power to all customers by 3 p.m. on Sunday.  

The work performed over the weekend was unprecedented for EWEB and has presented an opportunity for us to evaluate the protocols laid out in our Wildfire Mitigation Plan as they relate to planning, communication, and restoration. While flexibility of plans is important, we want our restoration work to be efficient and safe.   

“We understand the hardship that any extended power outage can cause, including shutting off water systems and medical devices, especially under the conditions of heat and smoke which were present over the weekend due to the nearby Cedar Creek Fire,” said Nice. “EWEB staff worked methodically to create a safe and reliable restoration plan during this event, resulting in a quick restoration without incident to crews or the public. We chose to take a conservative and planned approach to restoration, allowing crews to restore only after inspecting every section of line to avoid any possibility of ignition upon re-energization.”  

How can we be better the next time? That’s the question EWEB staff are focusing on now as we work diligently to improve our PSPS protocols. We met our objective during this event-- to mitigate the risk of wildfires safely and effectively--but there are still lessons to be learned and opportunities for improvement.   

“I want to thank our crews, engineers, dispatchers and all EWEB staff involved in coordination and execution without prior experience with an event such as this. Our team brought their expertise and applied innovation to a new situation, creating a safe and methodical approach to mitigate a known risk, consistent with our number one utility value of public safety. We now have in place updated processes and procedures that will reduce restoration time if or when this happens again,” said Nice.  

We continue to make improvements to our outage response process and investments to improve the resiliency of our systems, but even the most reliable infrastructure will never be completely immune to disruption. Extreme weather events can happen any time and power can be off for multiple days. It’s important to be prepared. We encourage our customers to create an emergency plan that accounts for all family members and animals, especially those with special medical or transportation needs, and practice it. EWEB offers additional information and best practices for emergencies on our website eweb.org/emergencyprep 

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