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Oregon regulators approve utility plans for minimizing wildfires

Craggy mountain peaks are blanketed in wildfire smoke in the Northern Cascade range near Mazama, Wash., Sept. 1, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Craggy mountain peaks are blanketed in wildfire smoke in the Northern Cascade range near Mazama, Wash., Sept. 1, 2022.

Oregon’s three largest electricity providers say they are adapting quickly to growing wildfire risks. State regulators have endorsed their plans as Oregon braces for a potentially hot, dry summer.

The extent of the utilities’ adaptations is laid out in annual “wildfire mitigation plans” filed with the state Public Utility Commission. That commission recently approved reports from Portland General Electric, Pacific Power and Idaho Power.

Following the devastating 2020 wildfire season, Oregon lawmakers enacted additional requirements on utilities, asking them to put forward yearly plans showing how they will minimize wildfires through activities like equipment maintenance, tree trimming and better monitoring.

The 2023 reports are the second time utilities have gone before state regulators with their yearly plans. The Public Utility Commission approved them on June 13 — the same week a jury found Pacific Power owes around $90 million to victims of the 2020 wildfires after its equipment sparked blazes across the state.

“This is sort of a revolution we have underway here,” Commission chairperson Megan Decker said of the swift changes before Oregon’s power providers.

Power shut offs

When and how Oregon utilities should turn off electricity during dangerous fire conditions is one of the major areas tackled in the wildfire plans.

Proactively turning the power off when areas are dry and windy has become more standard practice since California utilities caused several deadly wildfires between 2015 and 2019.

In its latest mitigation plan, Idaho Power says it has attempted to follow “best practices” now used by California’s utilities. That includes trying to alert people up to three days early that their power could shut off and sending alerts continually to people and organizations most likely to be affected.

Portland General Electric and Pacific Power presented similar plans.

One notable difference in the plans is the extent Pacific Power says it may opt to turn off its lines during fire conditions — an area of debate in the recent class action trial over the 2020 wildfires. During that trial, plaintiffs hammered Pacific Power for opting to keep its lines energized in areas that it didn’t consider at the highest level of wildfire risk in 2020.

The company now says it will consider power shutoffs anywhere in its service territory if the weather conditions meet their criteria. While state regulators approved the power shutoff portion of the reports, they noted that all three of the largest utilities should develop seasonal wildfire outlooks that are clear about which areas of the state are most likely to see the power go out. Shifting drought conditions and better weather data may change those areas from year-to-year.


Oregon’s regulators also noted in their review that the three utilities will be spending significant amounts of money in the coming years on wildfire prevention.

According to the plans presented, Portland General Electric anticipates it will spend around $50.6 million this year in wildfire mitigation and capital expenditures. Idaho Power expects to spend around $47.2 million, and Pacific Power estimates it will spend $136.7 million this year.

The Public Utility Commission welcomed the efforts and planned spending, but pushed for the utilities to make it clearer which efforts need priority so customers don’t see rapidly rising power bills with little return.

“How do we know we are reducing risk for what we’re spending?” Commissioner Letha Tawney asked at the June meeting.

Oregonians are likely to carry some cost in their electric bills related to wildfire protections. Oregon’s Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit that advocates for ratepayers, said Friday that they are pushing utilities to spread out costs over a long period of time to avoid “breaking customers’ budgets.”

“In future wildfire mitigation plans, CUB hopes to see utilities provide more details on the reasoning behind the utility’s decision-making process, and more detailed cost analyses and budget information,” Charlotte Shuff, a spokesperson, wrote in an email. “CUB appreciates the work the utilities and PUC have put into these efforts.”

Wildfire prevention costs may not be the only fire-related expenses some Oregonians carry either. After a Multnomah County jury found Pacific Power was responsible for four 2020 wildfires last month, the company appealed to the state Public Utility Commission to potentially let it pass the related legal costs on to customers.

The commission has not yet ruled on that request.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Ryan Haas has been with Oregon Public Broadcasting since 2013. His work has won numerous awards, including two National Magazine Award nominations for the podcast "Bundyville." Prior to working at OPB, Haas worked at newspapers in Illinois, Florida, Oregon and the Caribbean.