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Western Gas, Electric Utilities Keep Wary Eyes on Wildfires

Although the electric side of the utility business gets the most attention as both a potential source and vulnerable victim of wildfires and the high winds that accompany them, natural gas utilities also have a stake, albeit smaller, in the western fire wars that have been worse this year because of the prolonged droughts in California and other states.

On Thursday, the spokesperson for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) said none of the regulated pipeline companies have reported any impact from the wildfires that have raged for weeks. Electric utilities are, of course, the most vulnerable to fire and winds. Utilities in Idaho, Washington, and California last month sustained some damage, but nothing major, to towers, transmission lines, and distribution poles from the Soda Fire along the Idaho-Oregon border, the Rough Fire west of Fresno in California's central valley and a fire in Los Angeles County in the Angelus National Forest in the local mountains northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has not been impacted, but it is gearing up for Southern California's typical fire season in the fall when hot, dry Santa Ana winds off the desert traditionally raise the wildfire dangers. Sempra's other California utility, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), is less concerned, but nevertheless has to be vigilant, a Los Angeles-based spokesperson told NGI.

"Because our [transmission/distribution] pipe is buried underground, a wildfire is not generally an issue for the natural gas system, however, we do stay advised of any wildfires and if they burn near our pipe, we send someone to the incident command center to ensure that if the fire fighters are digging near our lines for fire breaks they don't inadvertently hit them," the SoCalGas spokesperson said.

She added that the gas-only utility designed sufficient extra capacity into its pipeline system "to deal with many types of [natural disaster] issues." If something, for example, were to happen to a compressor station, "we generally have other ways for natural gas to get to our customers."

In the windy, fiery fall of 2008, a major Southern California wildfire blackening parts of northern Los Angeles County, the Sesnon fire, was caused by a downed electric transmission line serving SoCalGas' largest underground storage facility, Aliso Canyon. The storage operations were shut down and 50 employees and contract workers evacuated (see Daily GPIOct. 20, 2008).

The storage facility kept on operating unmanned and was eventually unscathed by the fire. A year earlier, in 2007, Sempra's SDG&E was not as lucky when some of its downed electric transmission lines were found to be at least partially to blame for several wildfires that ran rampant in Southern California, drawing more than $1.3 billion in lawsuits, and eventually costing the utility a $740 million settlement (see Daily GPIAug. 4, 2009).

In the northern half of the state, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) monitors wildfire activity near transmission and distribution pipelines throughout its 70,000-square-mile service area, "proactively" implementing preventive measures to protect public and employee safety, a spokesperson told NGI on Thursday.

In the midst of fires, PG&E takes action to identify and mitigate risks to its system, and it has a corps of public safety specialists working closely with local fire crews and first responders. They look to take a number of actions:

  • Preventively applying fire retardant to above-ground facilities and valve locks;
  • Coordinating with U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire officials to avoid heavy equipment and bulldozers moving over gas transmission pipelines;
  • Conducting ground patrols in order to shut-in gas facilities if needed; inspecting valves, stations, etc.; and
  • Maintaining real-time information on fire activity and response operations as they might impact the utility system.
  • Conducting daily aerial fire patrols; funding lookout towers and cameras for early fire detection.

In eastern Washington state and northern Idaho, Spokane, WA-based Avista Utilities is working through the multiple fires in the region, monitoring and preparing to respond where necessary and noting that even when fire impacts one of its major electric transmission lines that alone usually will not result in any customer outages, an Avista spokesperson said.

"We had some minor damage to poles in the Stevens County, WA, area and some damage due to the severe wind storm we had last week," the spokesperson told NGI on Friday. "Otherwise, we are working closely with incident commanders to de-energize lines when necessary to protect fire fighters." Overall, he said Avista's role so far has been "minimal" in the region.

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