At the Nov. 26 meeting for the Lassen Municipal Utility District, assistant general manager Patrick Holley presented (and the board adopted) the final Wildfire Mitigation Plan.
The plan incorporates the utility’s objectives and strategies toward minimizing sources of ignition: resiliency of the electrical grid and wildfire prevention strategies and programs.
It outlines the utility’s governance structure of wildfire mitigation; its roles and responsibilities for recovery; coordination with local water departments, communication infrastructure providers; and a standardized emergency management system.
LMUD’S draft identifies the risks and drivers of those risks associated with topographic and climatological factors, such as extended drought, low humidity, weather (including high winds and lightning), terrain, human activities and climate change.
The utility will take aim at incorporating the CPUC’s fire threat map, which considers the service area as a Tier 2 — or elevated and not extreme — fire risk.
In addition to weather monitoring, LMUD will continue to monitor the National Electric Safety Code and assess the radial clearances of its bare line conductors from tree branches, foliage and vegetation.
The utility will continue to implement workforce training, and do so speaking to the new requirements as it develops new or updated procedures.
LMUD has also created plans for deenergization due to fire threat conditions, impacts to public safety, customer notification protocols, community outreach and public awareness and restoration of service. It concludes with a plan for the program’s evaluation.
At the Nov. 26 meeting, Holley — in addition to recognizing the significant deal of overhead the project will bring — brought Mark Shaffer from Out of the Woods Consulting, who described LMUD’s plan as well-written, easy to understand and simple.
Wildfire Mitigation Plan history
Last year California’s unbelievable wildfire season brought havoc to the north part of the state. Fires that include the Tubbs Fire, Camp Fire, Carr Fire, Whaleback Fire and more destroyed thousands of structures and cost many lives.
As a result, the state now requires all utilities to develop wildfire mitigation plans by January 2020. These plans must include everything from tree trimming transmission and distribution lines, upgrading equipment, planning for off power shut-offs (when red flag warnings arise) and pole brushing.
Around 9 percent of wildfires are started by utility operations, and the other 91 percent are caused by other manmade or natural causes. However, if a high voltage conductor comes into contact with a limb of a tree that has any moisture, it could potentially spark a fire.
“The forests are drying out and they’re heavily overgrown. Forestry practices in California have not kept up with the management of the forests, so we have these issues to deal with,” said Holley. “What we’re required to do as a utility, is to do our part to trim right-of-ways, trim trees away from active utility lines to avoid the possibility of creating a fire by a contact with a conductor.”
One of the utility’s most vulnerable high voltage conductor lines is the Caribou transmission line, which runs 20 miles between Westwood and Susanville. This line connects to PG&E’s power supply and was also the subject of 21 days with a loss of power during the Camp Fire. The only way to supplement power to the community was with Honey Lake Power’s biomass plant.
Holley first notified LMUD of the need to develop a plan during the utility’s October 2018 meeting. In his report he shared the news of California Senate Bill 901, which changed the rules governing the liability of utility companies when their electrical equipment causes wildfires.
SB 901, which contains provisions intended to reduce the risk of massive wildfires, also shifts billions of dollars of wildfire recovery costs from electric utility shareholders to ratepayers. It also mandates utilities such as LMUD create its local wildfire mitigation plan by January 2020.
At the October 2018 meeting Holley told the board, “We’ve been in touch with other utilities in northern California because we feel like CMUA’s approach has been timely; they’ve been on top of the issue as it went through the legislature, but quite honestly they’re following a model being set by investor-owned utilities and CPUC.”
At the time Holley shared that several utilities and co-ops had held a phone conversation talking about differing approaches.
“What the investor-owned utilities have done and proposed as their model … is extensive weather monitoring, electronic weather stations, 24-hour weather monitoring staff, positional communication staff for de-energizing lines, all kinds of additional things that we would like to do a different way. We’re not big; we don’t have big staffs. We can’t do some of this stuff,” said Holley.
For the utilities that convened, Holley said they prefer to use existing weather data, such as from the National Weather Service, Cal Fire and the Forest Service.
Holley mentioned LMUD’s already aggressive actions toward tree trimming and vegetation management and told the board the budgets for vegetation mitigation had seen increases in response to the issue.
Holley prepared a presentation for the council at the May 15 Susanville City Council meeting, describing the utility’s mandated wildfire mitigation plan. The presentation was brought in front of the city — as a local stakeholder — for input, insight and collaboration.
Holley told those in attendance PG&E is expected to shut off its breakers during high-fire conditions, which could have unexpected and unintended consequences for our area.
With this in mind, the utility and others in smaller and rural areas were expecting investor-owned utilities, such as PG&E to turn off power supply in the very near future.
It wouldn’t be too long before the prediction came to pass. Beginning on Oct. 9 through mid-to-late November, PG&E began a series of major public safety power shutoffs leading to massive outages throughout the state.
Holley emphasized that PG&E would need to stay in constant communication with LMUD and other utilities it connects.
Holley told the council, “We’ve all got to get a communications system in place so that when PG&E has this problem, and they call to say that within 24 hours your power may be out, we can make plans,” and get ready for HL Power’s energy.
The plan’s draft was brought before LMUD’s board where Holley sent the drafts as homework for the board at its August meeting and was sent back to the board at the utility’s September meeting for a final review.
The plans were then sent to other local agencies and stakeholders for review, including the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, local Fire Departments and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.