Lake Tahoe utility companies to cut power during extreme fire danger
LAKE TAHOE — Liberty Utilities and NV Energy are putting their customers on notice: Be prepared to go without power when the risk of catastrophic wildfire becomes too great.
As the Lake Tahoe Basin continues to thaw and the summer gets warmer, the threat of fire grows. High winds, low relative humidity and dry vegetation are a dangerous combination. Power lines caused the devastating and deadly Camp Fire last year in Paradise, California.
When dangerous fire weather is forecasted, the National Weather Service may issue a Red Flag Warning, but Kurt Althof, program manager for communications and media relations at Liberty Utilities, says there’s more that goes into the decision to chop power.
He said the utility contracts a forecaster for 24/7 weather monitoring and they have models set up that include such criteria as wind, speed and gusts, humidity, temperature, fire fuels index — the fuel load and dryness, and fire weather index.
“When all those planets align, or there is a prediction of them possibly aligning, that’s when we go into decision-making mode,” Althof said. “We determine where, on what lake shore or area. The red flag warning is a component, but not the end all.”
Althof referred to the Emerald Fire of 2016 and that weather pattern, where a tree fell into power lines during a red flag warning and power was down four hours.
The best estimate from Liberty is a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” event will happen once every 5 to 10 years. An event meaning all the “planets aligning.”
NV Energy, which controls power for customers on the East Shore, put out a press release in June that said it would implement Public Safety Outage Management for the first time.
NV Energy’s Senior Corporate Communication Specialist Kristen Saibini said that they did research for the past 18 years and “If this would have been active, there would have been approximately one occurrence a year where the condition lasted one hour for a shutoff.”
Customers to get notified in advance
Liberty and NV Energy plan to notify customers 48 hours in advance of any power shutdown. Both providers implore customers to make sure their account information is updated with the correct contact information.
Althof said Liberty will send a notification to every kind of contact information they have on file. It will start with a text, then email and finally a voice message if the customer hasn’t responded to acknowledge receipt.
Saibini said customers will receive a live phone call from the company.
In addition to being contacted, both companies will have information on their respective websites, NVenergy.com and Libertyutilities.com.
Utilities warn outages could last up to several days before power can be restored. Utility crews must complete a full inspection of their systems before power lines can be safely re-energized.
The companies also say customers need to prepare now, especially people who are medically dependent on power, and have a plan in place.
Customers who are dependent on electricity should consider alternative power like a generator or battery storage system.
Developing an evacuation plan, creating a go-bag and keeping emergency numbers within reach are recommendations to help before and during a wildfire.
For information on emergency preparedness and power shutoffs visit tahoe.livingwithfire.info or prepareforpowerdown.com.
Both utilities have ramped up vegetation management in the past two years.
Saibini said NV Energy is focused in Tahoe on replacing wood with steel poles and, like Liberty, changing conductors to prevent sparks if a tree falls on it and adding weather stations.
They also have added foot patrol where the power lines are inspected.
“Shutting off the power is a last resort for us,” Saibini said, adding that they’ve never had a shutdown. “We don’t want to shut off power.”
Althof said that the budget this year has nearly doubled to $4 million for fire prevention.
Liberty thins trees, chops branches and is vigorously complying with the defensible space around their high voltage power lines, especially in a Tier 3 danger area such as Meyers.
The rest of Lake Tahoe is at Tier 2.
Althof said the utility has installed 10 new weather stations, and plans to add more, that can be viewed online at liberty.westernweathergroup.com.
“We’re putting a lot more time, effort and resources behind it, which is a good thing,” Althof said. “But it’s a touchy time of year.”