Oregon utilities cut power amid dry winds and fire danger

PORTLAND, OR — Oregon utilities cut power to tens of thousands of customers on Friday as dry easterly winds swept through the region in hopes it would reduce the risk of wildfires in extremely dry conditions and hot.

Power outages from extreme fires, common in California, are relatively new in the Pacific Northwest. The plans, which were part of permanent rules approved in May to manage wildfire danger in high-risk areas, mark the new reality in a region best known for its rainforests and temperate forests.

Portland General Electric cut power to about 30,000 customers in 12 service areas – including Portland’s upscale West Hills neighborhood – and Pacific Power shut down service to more than 7,000 customers in a small community in the Pacific coast, where a wildfire burned two years ago. , and in pockets southeast of the state capital of Salem.

In total, more than 40,000 customers could lose power by the end of Friday during planned outages as winds of up to 60 mph hit and temperatures hover in the 80s and 90s .

Schools in areas where power cuts were expected canceled classes and authorities urged residents to charge their cellphones and be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

Climate change is driving drier conditions in the Pacific Northwest and that requires strategies that have been common in fire-prone California for the past decade or more, said Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon Climate. Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

The wind patterns have not changed, but these winds now more frequently coincide with drier vegetation and warmer temperatures – a toxic mix for fire ignition, rapid spread and extreme fire behavior, a- she declared.

“I don’t know if that’s the solution, but it’s an interim effort to manage wildfire risk,” Fleishman said. “People are going, ‘Oh my God!’ Areas that we thought were safe, they are realizing that they are no longer safe from fires.The probability of fires is changing.

The proactive power cuts were only the second ever by Portland General Electric. The utility cut power to 5,000 customers in 2020 near Mount Hood during firestorms that ravaged the state. Extreme winds over Labor Day weekend sparked wildfires that burned more than a million acres (405,000 hectares), destroyed 4,000 homes and killed at least 11 people – and services public were blamed for some of these fire starts.

Pacific Power, another major Oregon utility, said if it shuts off power to customers in six counties later Friday, as planned, it would be the first time the company has done so since the implementation of a wildfire mitigation plan in Oregon in 2018.

The utility was sued last year by residents of two towns that burned to ashes during the 2020 wildfires who blamed the company for not shutting off power before the devastating windstorm.

Pacific Power has since hired a team of meteorologists to do fire weather forecasts and is spending more than $500 million to “reinforce” its power grid in high-risk areas by replacing wooden poles with charred poles and wrapping power lines and conductive boxes to reduce the chance of a spark, said Drew Hanson, a spokesman for Pacific Power.

“You can look at the West in general and climate change has impacted parts of southern California and then northern California and now in that region as well, we’re seeing the same conditions,” he said. he declares.

“It’s something we take very seriously. We realize the evolution of the landscape. We have changed and evolved with it.

A number of fires are burning in Oregon.

The largest is the Double Creek fire burning in northeast Oregon near the Idaho border. The fire grew nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers) on Wednesday due to wind gusts of up to 80 km/h (50 mph) and by Friday had burned a total of nearly 214 square miles (554 kilometers squares). It threatens about 100 homes near the community of Imnaha.

In central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge has burned nearly 135 square miles. Authorities on Friday ordered residents in the Oakridge, Westfir and High Prairie areas to be ready to evacuate at any time due to increased fire activity.

The Van Meter Fire, which started on Wednesday, is burning on Mount Stukel about 21 kilometers southeast of Klamath Falls. One house and four structures were destroyed and about 260 structures are at risk from the fire, officials said.

The Rum Creek Fire was also burning in southwestern Oregon and was nearly halfway contained to about 33 square miles (82 square kilometers).

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Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.

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