Editors’ Note: Rachel Hansen is the senior communications strategist for the Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) based in Wenatchee, WA and is a resident of Leavenworth, WA. Chelan County PUD’s vision reads, “In a rapidly changing utility environment, we will provide: The Best Value for the Most People for the Longest Time.” Rachel’s work with the PUD focuses on outreach, public relations and media engagement. Here Rachel shares the expansive public process the PUD went through to develop a fire safety power shutoff policy for portions of Washington’s Chelan County.

I’ll never forget the phone call with the “unofficial fire chief of Little Chumstick Creek.” He’s a retired truck driver who loves a good chat, and he’s a volunteer firefighter who owns a water tender, pumps and generators. He’s the guy neighbors call when their burn pile goes awry.

He wanted to know — why now? After all these years, why are utilities choosing to shut off power during certain weather conditions?

“Why now?” is a question that utilities have taken a hard look at since the Labor Day fires of 2020. Utilities that didn’t proactively turn off power face class-action lawsuits. Regulations in California and Oregon require all investor-owned utilities to have PSPS plans. Insurers are spooked, with double-digit rate increases for utilities in fire-prone areas, and fewer insurers willing to cover wildfire risk at all.

A service person in a bucket truck trims branches away from a telephone pole

A contractor trims trees away from powerlines in 2020. Chelan PUD has more than doubled its vegetation management efforts in recent years to reduce fire risk and improve reliability. Photo by Chelan County PUD.

I’m part of a team at Chelan Public Utility District that developed one of Washington state’s first public safety power shutoff (PSPS) policies. We call it a fire safety outage plan, and it’s designed to prevent utility infrastructure from causing a fire when the wind is howling and conditions are tinder dry.

Power systems can create sparks when a tree lands on the line, or when lines touch in high winds – that hasn’t changed much over the years. What’s changed is fuel load. Forest health is declining, clearance areas around powerlines are limited, and more people are moving into fire-prone areas.

For Chelan PUD, the journey into “why now” started by analyzing wildfire risk in Chelan County. We reached out to a network of local fire experts, including Annie Schmidt at Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) and Patrick Haggerty of Cascadia Conservation District. We compiled studies from the U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources and we commissioned studies of our electrical system.

In summary, we learned:

  • Chelan County is far and away the most at risk for wildfire in Washington. According to a 2018 Forest Service study, four of the 10 most exposed communities are in our service area, including the No. 1-ranked Leavenworth.
  • The Lake Wenatchee-Plain community – a small mountain town about 20 miles north of Leavenworth – is the most at risk due to its proximity of structures, trees and overhead powerlines.

We focused on Lake Wenatchee, Plain and upper Chumstick Highway as the pilot area for fire season 2021. By prioritizing a small, high-risk area, we kept the project manageable, but also scalable in case we needed to expand this plan to other fire-prone areas in Chelan County.

A map in grey scale with the outline of the power shutoff area outlined

Map of Phase 1 fire safety outage area. The area includes about 3,900 electrical service meters and 250 wastewater customers. Map credit: Chelan PUD website.

We convened an Expert Working Group to help identify the fire ecology of the area and develop a set of thresholds for implementing a fire safety outage – the conditions that might lead to an uncontrollable fire. Based on historical weather data, these conditions occur approximately every 3-5 years. These are rare events when the threat to public safety is greater than the need for electricity.

Lake Wenatchee/Plain is a tight-knit, mountain community of full-time and part-time residents. We serve about 3,900 electrical service meters there, and 250 wastewater customers. Many residents are retired, but as one community organizer said, “We don’t really retire in Lake Wenatchee, we just start working for free.” Their volunteer fire department is trusted and well-organized, with an auxiliary force of about 100 members, and at least a dozen active EMTs. Several neighborhoods are certified Firewise USA® sites, with free chipping and cost-share programs.

Photo of high tension powerlines

The Coles Corner substation serves the Lake Wenatchee area. Photo credit: Chelan County PUD

Still, we knew a fire safety outage plan might be a tough sell in this area. PSPS is something they do in California, and its rocky and bitter debut there made national headlines. After careful thought, we developed a communications plan that took a phased-in, grassroots approach. Chelan PUD is known for extensive outreach to its customers and stakeholders.

We asked local fire chiefs, Chelan County Emergency Management, and other public agencies to identify challenges to consider, such as interruptions to cell and radio communications, water availability and the needs of people more vulnerable to outages. We recruited community leaders who had expertise in these areas to help us address these concerns proactively.

We presented the plan and fielded questions at meetings and events facilitated by key community organizations, including: the Lake Wenatchee Fire Auxiliary, the area’s county commissioner, Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and the River Road Firewise USA® site. As we broadened our reach with mailed postcards and emails to all customers in the pilot area, many community leaders supported the plan and helped us spread the word. In the end, it’s the conversations between neighbors that matter most.

A screenshot from a website announcing a public meeting

A notice of the public meeting from the Lake Wenatchee Info website.

A woman hands a fact sheet to a mother with her three kids standing alongside her outside under an easy up tent

Rachel Hansen of Chelan PUD hands a fact sheet about the utility’s fire safety outage plan to a local family at Lake Wenatchee Safety Day, hosted by Lake Wenatchee Fire Auxiliary, in May 2021.

 

Overall, people understood the fire risk, and they appreciated the PUD’s proactive approach. There were still concerns, mainly from business owners who want more time to arrange for back-up generation. We continue to work collaboratively with the community to prepare. We have developed an online page (at chelanpud.org/fsom) — that lays out what a fire safety outage is, how to prepare for it and what we are forecasting.

Two factors contributed to the success of our outreach: A deep understanding of the community, and the support of key leaders, like the “unofficial fire chief of Little Chumstick Creek.” His main concern was that his neighbors had the information they needed to be prepared, and especially the “why now.” The answer: because after careful consideration, research and engagement now is the time to put measures in place to protect our most at-risk communities should the need arise.

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