May 18, 2024

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – After officials said powerlines played a role in the 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon, experts are using new technology to help prevent powerlines from sparking wildfires.

Officials say the in-house meteorology program features technology that allows them to stay ahead of weather and wildfire risks — meaning a safer and more resilient power grid.

“We’re running weather forecast models in-house every day that are telling us circuit by circuit, powerline by powerline, what the weather conditions are going to be,” Steve Vanderburg, meteorology manager at Pacific Power, said.

Vanderburg said Pacific Power’s meteorology system uses 3-D forecasting and risk modeling tools to forecast outage and wildfire risks.

“These are models that tell us not just how windy it’s going to be but how many outages we could see, what’s the damage going to be,” Vanderburg said. “We’re generating an hourly 30-year history of weather across all those powerlines so then we’re able to translate that forecast and impacts.”

Back in February of 2021, the company hired Vanderburg to run its in-house meteorology department. He previously spent two decades at the National Weather Service and San Diego Gas & Electric at the forefront of technology to prevent wildfires.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase meteorology, in-house metrology or meteorology programs at utilities across the west and it’s because of the kinds of weather we’re seeing and the impacts it’s having on the grid,” Vanderburg explained.

He noted having these capabilities at Pacific Power will help keep the company ahead of weather threats — meaning fewer outages, shorter outages and reduces the risk powerlines causing wildfires.

“It really comes down to being resilient,” Vanderburg said. “Not only do we know where the weather could impact our system and cause outage or damages but we now also understand what the fire risk is we also know where wildfires would have the potential to be consequential and who could be affected by those and so it allows us stay ahead of weather related risks, wildfire related risks.”

The public can use the website they’ve built, which takes in data from all PacifiCorp utility owned weather stations, which provide weather conditions along PacifiCorp powerlines every 10 minutes, along with observation data from the National Weather Service, local fire agencies and departments of transportation. 

Multiple lawsuits say Pacific Power is responsible for causing the Santiam Canyon wildfires by not shutting off power lines despite the National Weather Service calling the fire warning “extremely critical.”

The unprecedented fires burned more than 200,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and properties and killed multiple people.

Pacific Power hasn’t commented on those lawsuits but KOIN 6 News heard from one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs on Thursday, who says those lawsuits continue to be prepared for trial.

Derek Johnson, one of the attorney’s representing several victims in a lawsuit against PacifiCorp, said “the fire litigation against PacifiCorp is moving along well. The lawsuits allege that PacifiCorp is responsible for causing the fires that destroyed so many homes and properties and disrupted — even destroyed — so many lives.  As the lawsuits continue to be prepared for trial, the evidence against PacifiCorp keeps getting stronger. In the case of the Labor Day fires, it was not a lack of technology that led to the fires.  It was a failure by PacifiCorp to use the tools they already had at their disposal. That failure is what led to so much destruction on Labor Day 2020.”

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