Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Public power responds to call for help with Calif. wildfires

Public power utilities in the West have been responding to California wildfires through state and regional mutual aid programs, assisting not only fellow public power utilities, but also investor-owned utilities.

The Carr Fire directly affected Redding Electric Utility (REU), a public power utility in northern California with about 44,000 meters and a peak demand of 241 megawatts.

The fire — the state’s eighth largest ever — started July 23 and has burned about 215,000 acres in the Redding, California, area. The fire was 71 percent contained as of Aug. 16, according to Cal Fire, a state agency.

The fire, started by a mechanical failure of a vehicle, has destroyed 1,077 residences, 22 commercial structures and 500 outbuildings while damaging 191 residences, 26 commercial structures and 65 outbuildings, Cal Fire estimates.

In response to the fire, REU put out a call for mutual aid from other utilities, according to Jeff Briggs, emergency preparedness manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and vice chair for the Western Region Mutual Assistance Group.

California utilities that sent crews to help REU restore its system include the following public power utilities: Alameda Municipal Power, Lassen Municipal Utility District, Modesto Irrigation District, City of Roseville Utilities, Silicon Valley Power, SMUD, and the Western Area Power Administration, according to REU.

Other utilities that helped deal with the Carr Fire include Washington state-based Clark Public Utilities and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, both public power utilities.

With the mutual assistance, REU was able to restore power to all serviceable homes by Aug. 2. At one point, a “fire-nado” ripped three of the Western Area Power Administration’s steel lattice transmission structures out of the ground, leaving one of them like a “crumpled ball of string,” said Lisa Meiman, WAPA spokeswoman.

About a dozen transmission structures were destroyed in the Carr Fire, Meiman said. WAPA took 15 transmission lines out of service during the fire, but all are operating now, she said.

California utilities provide help to each other through the California Utilities Emergency Association, which was set up in 1952.

The group includes most electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and telecommunications utilities in the state, Briggs said.

In a change that is affecting the group, Briggs said California is beginning to see disasters occurring in the north and the south at the same time.

Usually, California can draw on mutual aid assistance from within the state, but in major emergencies electric utilities can seek aid through the WRMAG, Briggs said.

PG&E, for example, has been dealing with dozens of wildfires, including the Mendocino fires, the state’s largest ever with about 367,000 acres burned so far. The largest Mendocino fire — the Ranch Fire — was 69 percent contained as of Aug. 16.

Imperial Irrigation District, Washington state-based Snohomish County Public Utility District, Oregon-based Tillamook People’s Utility District, as well as investor-owned utilities, sent crews to help respond to the fire, according to PG&E.

There is an increase in wildfires in California, with fires occurring year-round instead of just the summer and early fall, according to Briggs.

Cal Fire has dealt with 4,168 fires this year covering 726,329 acres compared with 3,867 fires over 225,744 acres in the same period last year, according to the agency.

The five-year average for the same period totals 3,787 fires on 140,174 acres.