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Utility-caused wildfires becoming a national problem

After a utility pole fell and started a wildfire, Frank King and his family rushed to escape when electrical transformers exploded around their homes near the Oregon coast. A bright red glow was visible in the rearview mirror for miles around.

The fire three and a half years ago destroyed 300 homes in Otis, Ore., including the one in which Mr. King, a 101-year-old World War II veteran, had lived for nearly three decades.

“A lot of things that reminded me of the good things in my life are gone,” said Mr. King, who thinks things might have turned out differently if his utility, PacifiCorp, had cut its power lines before a violent wind storm. “It costs me terribly.”

Not long ago, large wildfires started by power lines and other utility equipment were considered something that happened primarily in California. But these disasters are happening more and more in more and more places, as the forces accentuated by climate change, like extreme heat and drought, wreak havoc on power grids that were not built or improved to resist it.

Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility company, recently acknowledged that its equipment most likely triggered the Smokehouse Creek Fire last month in the Texas Panhandle. In August, Hawaiian Electric said one of its power lines ignited the devastating fire in Lahaina on the island of Maui. And this month, a jury ordered PacifiCorp to pay $42 million to 10 families who lost their homes in the fire that forced Mr. King to flee his home on Labor Day weekend in 2020.

In all of these cases, the utilities argued that they were not negligent and should not be penalized for fires started by their equipment.

Most climate experts expect that global warming will make wildfires much more likely, even in places not previously considered at risk, like rainforests and wetlands. Although wildfires can be started in many ways, utilities, with their networks of cables and transformers, are a big cause for concern.

The industry says it is working to reduce the risk of fires through a variety of approaches, including burying power lines, a very expensive option, and using less expensive tools such as sensors and software to cut electricity when fires are likely.

But industry critics, including homeowners and some lawmakers, say the industry isn't doing enough to prevent such fires.

“There is a reluctance to adapt in this industry,” said Cody Berne, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who represents Mr. King and other wildfire survivors. “This is criminal incompetence.”

Utility executives say the rapid escalation of climate-related disasters has made it difficult to manage millions of miles of towers, poles and cables in a system more than 100 years old.

“Past risk is not really a good indicator of future risk anymore,” said Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of safety and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group. “We are seeing a rapid change in extreme weather conditions. It's intimidating.

Electricity costs have risen sharply in recent years as utilities have responded to extreme weather and rising energy demand. The industry spends billions of dollars to bury power lines, cover cables, trim and remove trees and shrubs, and purchase weather stations, cameras and other equipment to better monitor and control electrical equipment.

But not all responses to climate change need to be costly. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that the risk of wildfires caused by utilities could be reduced by up to 75 percent using sensors already in place in many utilities and upgrading companies' software systems.

These changes would automatically shut off parts of the utility's network within milliseconds when tree limbs, animals or other objects cause problems on power lines. Using this technology, known as fast travel, is much cheaper and easier than installing power lines underground, an approach that several large Western utilities are also pursuing.

Burying power lines can cost $3 million to $4 million per mile. Such projects can take years to be approved, developed and completed. By comparison, fast-travel technology costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per mile, including installing equipment and sending utility crews to inspect circuits before power is restored, they said. said the Berkeley researchers.

“There are opportunities for innovation that could continue to reduce risk,” said Duncan Callaway, a professor of energy and resources at the university.

Mr. Callaway analyzed the wildfire prevention efforts and costs of Pacific Gas & Electric, which has 5.5 million electricity customers, more than any other utility in a single state. While PG&E and other utilities in the West use fast travel, which he called “obvious,” Mr. Callaway said he doesn't know how many others have done it.

Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, agrees that fast travel is an important solution, but he added that other tools, such as low-orbit satellites, could help utilities detect quickly identify problems and assess conditions without shutting off power.

“The first thing we need to do is put in place this early warning system globally,” Mr. Mansoor said.

In Oregon, neither automated technology nor utility workers preemptively shut off power that September 2020 weekend, even though forecasters had warned for days of torrential winds and a 90 degree heat. A falling utility pole sparked a fire on Echo Mountain near the coast in central Oregon. It was one of 30 lights that burned 1.2 million acres across the state over the weekend, killing nine people and destroying 5,000 homes and businesses.

Jim Holland, a 40-year-old chef, lost the house he and his wife, Briana, had bought – their first – nine months earlier. The Hollands and Mr. King, a neighbor, rebuilt with insurance money and other assistance, but they also sued for compensation from PacifiCorp. Many community members are still so traumatized that they are baffled by even the slightest plume of smoke rising, even if it's just a barbecue. The area is still marked by mudslides, charred utility poles and burned trees with peeling bark.

“We feel like we're living in rubble,” Mr. Holland said. “It’s not what it used to be. There are glassy-eyed people wondering what happened to their lives.

For many Oregonians, it's difficult to understand how a state known for its rainforests became a tinderbox.

Last year, a wildfire ravaged a critical rainforest that includes a watershed that supplies water to a million people in the Portland metro area and a hydroelectric dam.

“If you've been here a long time, like me, you can see that climate change is real,” said Mingus Mapps, a Portland city commissioner who oversees water, transportation and environmental services. “It was a fire that only happens once in a thousand years. It was terrifying.

A flash of lightning started this fire. But Mr. Mapps, the Democratic candidate for mayor, said the city was also concerned about the risk of fire from electrical equipment.

For utilities, fires also pose potentially crippling financial risks from lawsuits filed by property owners and their insurance companies. PG&E filed a request bankruptcy protection in 2019 after racking up billions of dollars in liability from several wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California.

Mr. Aaronson, director of the industry trade group, said utilities have learned lessons from California's traumatic wildfires. But he noted that utility equipment caused less than 10 percent of wildfires across the country.

“We are working to reduce that number further,” Aaronson said. “There are tens of thousands of kilometers of transmission infrastructure. There are millions of kilometers of distribution.

Extreme weather conditions have made it difficult to prepare every part of the electricity system for climate change. One improvement some companies are making is to make greater use of fast travel technology.

PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, said it began using the technology for wildfire prevention in 2021, the year after the Echo Mountain fire, although the technology has been around for many years.

But using tools like rapid shutoffs or public safety power shutoffs, which California utilities have used when the risk of fire in an area is likely to be high, can be unpopular because they deprive residents and businesses of electricity. Utilities say they prefer approaches that keep the lights on.

Allen Berreth, vice president of wildfire mitigation operations at PacifiCorp, said that while the company was using rapid-fire and other tools, it also planned to bury many more power lines.

“Being underground means there is no power outage for public safety,” Berreth said.

Berkshire Chairman and CEO Warren E. Buffett told investors in February, he expected wildfire losses at his company's utility subsidiaries to increase in coming years. He also warned that utilities would have to spend a lot more money on fire prevention — spending that energy experts say would drive up electricity rates.

“The bottom line for the utilities sector could be worrying,” Mr. Buffett said. “When the dust settles, America's energy needs and resulting capital expenditures will be staggering.”

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