Oregon utilities shut off power amid strong dry winds, fire danger

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon utilities began cutting power to thousands of customers Friday as dry easterly winds swept through the region in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires in extremely dry and hot conditions.

Power outages due to extreme fire weather, common in California, are relatively new to the Pacific Northwest. The plans, which were part of permanent rules approved in May to manage fire risk in high-risk areas, signal the new reality in a region best known for rainfall and temperate rainforests.

Portland General Electric cut power to the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood Corridor east of Portland, Oregon, and a second utility was poised to begin its own outage Friday for 12,500 customers if conditions develop as expected. More than 40,000 customers, including in Portland’s upscale West Hills neighborhood, will likely be without power until late Friday in planned outages as winds of up to 60 mph hit some areas and temperatures hovered in the 80s and lows. ’90.

Schools in areas with planned power outages canceled classes and authorities urged residents to charge cellphones and be ready to evacuate immediately.

Climate change is bringing drier conditions to the Pacific Northwest, and that requires strategies that have been common in California wildfires for the past decade or more, said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

Wind patterns haven’t changed, but those winds now more often coincide with drier vegetation and warmer temperatures — a toxic mix for fire ignition, rapid spread and extreme fire behavior, he said.

“I don’t know if this is the solution, but it’s an interim effort to manage fire risk,” Fleishman said. “People go, ‘Oh my God!’ Areas we thought were safe realize they are no longer immune to fire. The likelihood of fire is changing.”

The preemptive power outages were just the second for Portland General Electric. The power grid cut power to 5,000 customers in 2020 near Mount Hood during wildfires that ravaged the state. Extreme winds over the Labor Day weekend fueled wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), destroyed 4,000 homes and killed at least 11 people — and utilities were blamed for some of those fires.

Pacific Power, another major utility in Oregon, said if it cuts power to customers in six counties later Friday, as expected, it will be the first time the company has done so since it enacted a plan to mitigate of wildfires in Oregon in 2018.

The utility was sued last year by residents of two towns burned to ashes in the 2020 wildfires, who accused the company of failing to shut off power before the devastating windstorm.

Pacific Power has since hired a team of meteorologists to make wildfire weather forecasts and is spending more than $500 million to “harden” its power grid in high-risk areas by replacing wooden poles with carbon ones and enclosing power lines and conduits to reduce chances of a spark, said Drew Hanson, a spokesman for Pacific Power.

“You can look across the West in general and climate change has affected areas from Southern California, and then Northern California and now up to this region, we’re seeing the same conditions,” he said.

“It’s something we take very seriously. We understand the changing landscape. We change and evolve with it.”

A series of fires are burning in Oregon. The largest is the Double Creek Fire burning in northeastern Oregon near the Idaho border. The fire grew by nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers) on Wednesday due to wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 km/h), and as of Thursday had burned a total of nearly 158 square miles (409 square kilometers). It threatens about 100 houses near the community of Imnaha.

In central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge has burned nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers). That fire prompted new mandatory evacuations Thursday for several recreation areas and campgrounds in Linn, Deschutes and Klamath counties and for residents in the greater Oakridge and Westfir areas to be prepared to evacuate.

The Van Meter Fire, which started Wednesday, is burning on Stukel Mountain about 13 miles (21 kilometers) southeast of Klamath Falls. One home and four structures have been destroyed, and about 260 structures are threatened by this fire, Medema said Thursday.

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Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon contributed to this report.

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