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A ‘tool of last resort’: PSE may shut off power in some areas when fire risk is high

caption: Smoke from the Sumner Grade fire is visible on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, along Sumner Tapps Highway East in Sumner, Washington.
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Smoke from the Sumner Grade fire is visible on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, along Sumner Tapps Highway East in Sumner, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

This year’s wildfire season may bring a new wrinkle for some Puget Sound Energy customers.

The utility has said it may begin to use temporary power shut-offs in some communities to prevent powerlines from igniting blazes in risky weather conditions.

Officials are calling this new approach a “tool of last resort.”

Ryan Murphy, director of electric operations at PSE, said the company is doing constant monitoring to determine if dangerous weather conditions are on the horizon.

"I'm really talking about low humidity, I'm talking about high temperatures, dry fuels, high burn potential, and dangerous gusting winds. Those conditions approaching us in the forecast is what could lead us to a public safety power shut-off,” Murphy said.

The power shut-offs could occur anywhere in PSE’s service area, according to Murphy, and first reported by the Seattle Times.

However, communities at higher risk include those to the east of the Cascade mountains and places like Skagit Valley in the west.

Murphy said the company has been doing outreach to customers who may be affected. Customers will be notified before any loss of power.

Similar to evacuation warnings and orders, Murphy said there will be multiple levels of notifications, including a public safety power shut-off watch and a notice of imminent power loss.

He said there will be additional outreach to medically vulnerable customers, such as those who rely on power-operated medical equipment.

People who may need additional notice should reach out to PSE and develop a backup plan.

“We always definitely encourage customers who have unique needs, and sensitive, medically vulnerable customers, to have backup power,” Murphy said.

Murphy said PSE is also working on other community engagement efforts to provide support in the event that there’s an incident.

The PSE website states that, if power is cut, it will only be restored when it’s safe to do so.

There are situations where that could take several days.

In recent years, climate change, largely fueled by emissions from the use of coal, oil and gas, has led to longer and more severe wildfire seasons in Washington.

The move from PSE is just the latest example of how intensified wildfire seasons are affecting the lives of community members across the state.

Murphy said PSE is working hard, moving toward clean-energy goals that have been set forth.

He said the utility has even gone beyond state Legislature targets. Now, wildfire mitigation work is just one more challenge that needs to be addressed.

The latest data available, from 2022, shows coal accounts for 23% of PSE’s energy generation.

A spokesperson said PSE will be required to be coal-free by 2025.

As wildfire season approaches, Murphy said PSE is asking customers to partner with them. More information about potential power shut-offs, how to get alerts, and what to expect can be found on the utility’s website.

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