Fire Puts PUD Line Crews to Test

Response to Wildfire Preparation Is Key

Paul Titus, PUD principal engineer and Strategic Asset Planner, surveys pole damage in a fire zone.

When wildfire rages across the countryside, the day doesn’t end at closing time for the crews of Northern Wasco County PUD.

Multiple wildfires have tested the resiliency and responsiveness of local power utilities during this year’s fire season.

Northern Wasco has been in the thick of it, starting with mutual aid response to the massive Substation Fire, then continuing in their own territory with multiple fires near Dufur and Tygh Valley.

“Crews during the Substation Fire were out working, at minimum 16-18 hours,” says Pat Morehart, Engineering and Operations Manager. “They would come back and get some rest, then be right back at it again.”

Lineman safety and welfare take paramount importance during these times.

“We pay close attention to where they are at and make sure they have water and food and whatever else they need out there. We keep the communications going with them and manage them really closely. These are the most stressful and worst conditions, but these guys are willing to go out and work, and they deserve the best management.”

At the same time, they have work responsibilities during the fire, some of the linemen are also residents in and around the fire zones.

“We have three linemen currently out there on their own time helping their neighbors protect their property or trying to put out the fire,” says Paul Titus, the PUD’s principal engineer and Strategic Asset Planner.

One utility is rarely alone in emergencies like these fires. The PUD has mutual aid agreements with neighboring utilities and is also part of a Western

regional mutual aid group that can be tapped during dire circumstances.

PG & E, Pacific Gas & Electric, in California, for example, sought help from 60 to 80 crews with their enormous fires in Redding.

Fire response starts with preparation and planning.

Last year, the PUD hosted range fire training by the Oregon Department of Forestry and invited other Mid-Columbia utilities to participate.

Equipment and supplies are also key preparation areas.

“We try to have enough supplies on hand to meet emergencies,” Paul says. “Or we try to keep the channels open with our suppliers and know that they actually have extra stock on hand.”

In addition to the emergency response to get the power turned back on, sometimes utility managers are called upon to make strategic decisions during and after a wildfire.

 evening on fire
A PUD crew works into the evening on fire damage as fire glows in the distance.

The South Valley fire, for example, was expected to threaten a stretch of line that provided power to four substations, two owned by Wasco Electric and two by Northern Wasco. If it had gone down while in service, power to more than 2,000 customers would have been disrupted.

“We did some pre-emptive switching once we saw where the fire was going to threaten that 69-kilovolt line,” Pat says. Routing the power to alternate lines protected ongoing service to those customers.

The decision was also a safety issue.

“If an energized line goes to ground and there happens to be a fire crew nearby, it could be an issue,” Paul says. “It’s still going to fall, but you take away one hazard.”

Fires like these are also a point at which utilities can evaluate current lines.

“If a pole line is not in a very accessible area—it may be near a creek or have tree issues or the road may have moved—and you lose eight or nine poles in a section, does it make sense to put it back in the exact same spot or to try and align it better and move it up closer to the road right-of-way?” Paul asks.

The PUD provided engineering help for Wasco Electric to relocate some of its lines.

Fires can also help drive strategic decisions. For example, if a stretch of the line looks likely to be in the path of fire repeatedly, the long-term capital improvement plan may be modified to include the replacement of wood poles with more costly steel poles.

Fire season is far from over in Mid-Columbia, so PUD crews may be called on again to address fire-related outages. Pat urges customers to be patient if the lights go out.

“Know that we haven’t forgotten about them. Things get prioritized. We do what we can to minimize the outages. We prioritize the work that we do to get the most amount of people on the quickest.”

The crews also have to do repairs and reconstruction section by section outward from the power supply, Paul notes.

Preparing for the Worst

When fire or other disaster threatens, will you be ready?

Advance preparation is vital to weathering disaster, whether it is fire, flood, blizzard or earthquake.

“I want to remind people that they need to be able to be self-sufficient for at least two weeks,” says Lance Kublick, Energy Management Specialist for the PUD. Lance also coordinates emergency preparedness efforts. “There can be a chance there may not be anybody to help them for a while.”

Water takes top priority in an emergency, either bottled water or a storage tank. A supply of nonperishable food is next. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has a list of items to include in your emergency kit online (PDF). You can find other emergency resources online at

FEMA recommends people keep more than one emergency kit, including a large one at home and a smaller kit in their vehicle or at work.

At home, Lance recommends storing it in a place that would be accessible in the event of an earthquake. “People are starting to get away from basements, because if the house collapses, you may not be able to get to that,” he says. “Garages are good.”

If cost is an issue, emergency kits can be assembled a little bit at a time.

“You don’t have to go out and buy everything all at once,” Lance says. “In your regular shopping pattern, every week or two weeks, you can pick up a little extra. It doesn’t take long before you have enough for two weeks.”

In the case of a fire, in particular, defensible space is a key issue in home protection.

Providing a defensible space around a home can help ensure it remains safe during a fire. According to, a defensible space includes a Zone 1 30 feet around a structure where potential fire fuels are pruned and cleared away from the home and trees are pruned 10 feet away from the home so they don’t hang over the roof. Zone 2 defense extends 100 feet from the structure where the grass is kept mowed and plantings are spaced out to prevent fire from traveling easily in between.

Fire agencies often review properties before fire season to determine whether they are safely defendable and whether their engines have easy access and escape routes.

Learn more about preparing for natural disasters at Get Ready The Dalles, an emergency preparedness festival planned for Saturday, September 23, from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. at Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue, 1400 W. Eight St., The Dalles. The event will include a free lunch, prize drawings, and interactive presentations starting at 10:30 A.M.