A spark from a Pacific Gas and Electric wire started the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Over the next 17 days, 85 people died, more than 18,000 buildings were destroyed, and the City of Paradise, California was all but wiped from the map.
In Nevada, Senate Bill 329 became law on May 22, 2019. The bill mandates that by July 1, 2020, power utilities operating in Nevada submit a Natural Disaster Protection Plan (NDPP) to the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) for approval.
Mark Regan is the first-ever wildfire mitigation specialist for NV Energy. Regan is a career fire marshal and emergency management expert. Since the signing of SB329, Regan explained that the NDPP was written during a series of inclusive stakeholder meetings.
According to Regan, as many as 150 other individuals who represented every level of government and emergency and fire management, to include tele-communications companies, helped craft the NDPP.
A series of 6 public comment meetings refined the plan, and on February 28 of this year, NV Energy, the state’s largest utility, submitted the NDPP to the PUCN for approval.
The NDPP must identify areas within the service territory of the electric utility where there is a heightened threat of wildfire or other natural disasters.
Regarding fire danger, NV Energy and stakeholders have identified Mt. Charleston Wilderness just west of Las Vegas and the Lake Tahoe Basin as Public Safety Outage Management [POSM] zones. This means, the utility may shut off power to those areas if certain fire danger criteria exist.
What are the criteria for shutting off power?
In a phone interview, Mark Regan was emphatic in saying the last thing NV Energy wants to do is turn off power to its customers, but given certain environmental conditions, interaction between power lines and other objects such as trees and wind-driven debris or animals can cause lines to spark and fires to start. Deenergizing the high risk lines has proven to be an effective measure in preventing utility-caused wildfires. Due to the lack of planning, power shutoffs in California last summer caused significant economic loss and chaos.
“To trigger a PSOM event is not just high winds where we’re going to deenergize,” Regan said. “We look at the fuel moisture. We do fuel sampling up in the Tahoe Basin, Mount Charleston area. It goes from a bi-weekly to a weekly basis, as the conditions are changing.
“So you’ll see us sampling the fuel moisture, and this is going to tell us a lot of different things on how a fire would behave, the fire spread, and the how the conditions are drying up.”
The collection and analysis of data is constant. NV Energy shares this information with the US Forest Service and local fire agencies for a collaborative assessment. Weather data is a key component when deciding to deenergize a power grid for safety reasons.
Working with the National Weather Service, NV Energy has added 30 additional weather stations in support of fire management decisions. Ten additional cameras will be added to the Wildfire Camera Alert network this year.
“We put it all together, and when those conditions are getting close to our thresholds where it has to do with high wind, below average fuel moisture, energy release component, the fire spread and the heat, the terrain, the conditions and the health of the forest, when all those conditions are met, which we’re analyzing on a daily basis, when those conditions can be met – we’re predicting it out 8 days – we trigger our team to get together and we say, ‘okay, in eight days, we could possibly get to those conditions or it might trigger a PSOM event.’”
Regan said if conditions for a utility-caused fire become imminent, the public will be alerted to the potential of a PSOM event.
“If it goes to a point where we’re going to have to do a PSOM event, we’ll be making notification to the public. Notifications to the public will start 48 hours out. The reason why it’s 48 hours is because the conditions change,” Regan said.
Emergency managers have had the authority to do a PSOM event in the Tahoe Basin and Mount Charleston area since last year, but conditions never warranted a power shut off, though according to Regan, it was close.
“Last year at Mount Charleston, we thought we might have to do a PSOM event, and it got to the point where the data came to us and was showing that we were going to reach our thresholds on the wind and the moisture. And over the time period of us looking at that data, a couple days out from that day, it changed,” Regan said.
As weather approaches over mountains, in southern or northern Nevada, conditions are mercurial and often isolated in effect. Regan emphasized that they do not wait until conditions are bad to begin communicating among stakeholders and assessing risk. Assessment is continual, and if the potential for a PSOM event becomes imminent, the team of stakeholders will begin outreach to the public and set up Customer Resource Centers in affected areas.
Customer Resource Centers
Customer Resource Centers are places where people can access power, wireless coverage, and latest power shutoff information.
“The Customer Resource Centers that we have set up is where citizens can go charge their cell phone charger, laptop, charger, any kind of medical device there,” Regan explained. “We’re going to be providing cell phone coverage there. We’re going to be providing Wi-Fi there. And also the latest information. We’ll have an NV energy rep there that can provide the latest on the deenergization.”
Green Cross Customers
In planning for the eventuality of a PSOM event, some NV Energy customers have medical conditions that require constant electrical power for essential equipment.
“These are people that a physician is saying that they need to have power on constantly because of a health condition. So we have a list, and if anyone is in those conditions, we want to make sure they reach out to NV Energy, fill out the proper form, so we can get you on the list.
“It’s not just for the PSOM but for any type of event. So this is really crucial to get that information out to the citizens that need it.
“We’ll reach out to them prior to the 48 hours at the 72 hour mark. We’re going to personally reach out to them and see what type of accommodations that we can make so they can maintain their crucial power for their medical equipment,” Regan said.
Following the fire prevention blackouts across northern California last summer, NV Energy crews assisted in the laborious process of safely reenergizing their grid. According to Regan, NV Energy crews saw hundreds of instances where foliage came in contact with power lines.
Last year, NV Energy inspected some 34,000 wooden power poles. Under the provisions of the NDPP, the utility does a detailed line inspection in high risk areas every three years. In-between those inspections, individuals patrol the lines on an ongoing basis.
With the adoption of SB329, the utility is required to do “pole cropping” and right of way clearances around power lines. NV Energy has contracted with agencies already doing fire mitigation treatments to do some of the line area maintenance.
“It’s where we remove the vegetation around our poles to prevent any chance of a bird strike or an animal strike or like we were dealing with the other day, tarps getting into our lines because of high winds and causing an arc to come across the line and then go into the wildland and causing a fire,” Regan said.
The NDPP is designed to be adaptable
The effects of a changing climate and other factors inspired the need for an adaptable plan. The PUCN has 180 days from the time the utility submits the NDPP for approval to evaluate the proposal. The utility, stakeholders, and the PUCN are currently sorting out details, but the plan is designed to be updated every year. If modifications need to be made, an annual PUCN evaluation provides opportunity.
Every 3 years, according to the law, the utility has to resubmit an updated NDPP to the PUCN for approval.
There have traditionally been regular communications between NV Energy and the Northern Nevada Fire Chiefs, the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs, the Southern Nevada Operating Group, and state-wide emergency managers in general. Since the coordination imposed by SB329, relationships with the utility have grown closer, especially in the sense of operational and situational awareness regarding wildfire. The end result for Regan and NV Energy is that the plan meets the needs of all involved and affected.
“They really took it as if it was their own plan and took responsibility,” Regan said of the many stakeholders behind the NDPP and in operation. “It’s really nice to see how it all came together. Each one has its own part, so it was a great feedback and really exciting to see how we did this.”
Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media reporter. Support his work in the Ally.