Power shutoffs, smoky skies: Is this the new normal?
Residents and businesses in the hills of Southwest and Northwest Portland are used to losing power during the winter. Ice and snow encased tree branches frequently fall and break power lines.
But what happened the weekend of Sept. 10-11 was unprecedented. Portland General Electric voluntarily cut off power to those living and working in the city's wooded westside upper heights, even as temperatures were expected to soar to the high 90s over the weekend. The proactive outages eventually spread to 17 areas and affected more that 38,000 customers.
Pacific Power did the same thing in other parts of the Willamette Valley on a smaller scale. Some people were only notified a few hours in advance.
All power was restored by Sunday, Sept. 11, after winds died down enough for crews to inspect the lines. PGE said that required 500 operational personnel, including 112 contractors, working around the clock.
Some customers might have wondered if outages were even legal. The answer is yes, because they were authorized by the Public Utility Commission that regulates electric and other utilities. The outages — officially known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs — were intended to reduce the risks of wildfires in hot and dry conditions when strong winds are forecast. They are allowed under a new Wildfire Mitigation Plan that was adopted in May of this year. Before then they only happened on a few occasions in 2020 and 2021 under a temporary rule. They are likely to happen a lot more in the future.
Clackamas ablaze — again
The wildfire threat was clearly real this month. Several fires already were burning in the state when winds were forecast to increase.
Estacada-area residents in Clackamas County were forced to evacuate on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9 and 10, when a nearby wildfire at Milo McIver State Park ignited Friday evening and spread to 25 acres, filling the region's skies with smoke.
That fire, which was out by Saturday morning, saw 12 fire agencies assist, including Portland Fire & Rescue, which dealt with its own small roadside fires at least twice during the high fire danger weekend.
This year's blaze comes two years after nearly half a million acres burned from the Labor Day fires in 2020 and as rebuilding in and around Estacada is still underway.
That fire, spurred by high winds, burned more than 1 million acres, destroyed 4,000 homes, killed at least 11 people, and shrouded the Portland area in hazardous smoke for days.
One difference from two years ago is the addition of the new Estacada Fire District, which was keeping a close tab on the weather and had additional firefighters on standby for the weekend who were ready to respond quickly.
With more money from Senate Bill 672, passed by the Legislature in 2021, local fire departments have more resources for such crises. Also, Estacada-area property owners had been hard at work clearing brush and fuel from their land in advance.
"We pre-plan by going out, looking at our areas, getting brush cleared, having homeowners clear and make defensible space around their homes, so if a fire does happen, we have a little bit more chance to get in and deal with it," said Alan Lashbrook, assistant fire chief of the Estacada Fire Department.
Despite the fire being contained Saturday morning, evacuation orders remained in effect until Sunday afternoon.
Clackamas County public safety agencies noted high winds meant the McIver State Park fire was at risk of reigniting or spreading, making it unsafe for residents to return to their homes right away.
Assistance from local residents was key to contain the fire early, said Izak Hamilton, spokesperson for the Clackamas Fire District. They brought in heavy equipment, including dozers and track hoes, which helped quickly build fire lines as additional fire agencies responded.
Four structures were damaged in the fire, Hamilton said. One home and a barn were destroyed. Another home was damaged when an ember sparked a fire started in the attic, and the fire spread before firefighters could stop it.
An investigation led by the Oregon Department of Forestry is underway to determine what sparked the fire.
Danger behind us for now
According to AccuWeather meteorologists, after weeks of abnormal weather in the western half of the country, a cooldown arrived on Monday, Sept. 12.
"In recent days and weeks, those in the western United States have proven to be no stranger to volatile, abnormal weather," according to an AccuWeather press release. "With dangerous flash floods from the North American monsoon, days of extreme heat and an abnormal tropical storm in Southern California, conditions across the Intermountain West have been anything but normal."
As of Sept. 10, conditions in the month of September across parts of the West had been characterized by stifling, unrelenting heat, according to the weather service. The worst of this was felt in California, where numerous locations broke all-time high temperature records by comfortable margins. "In the state capital of Sacramento, (a) high of 116 F was the hottest ever for the city, and temperatures are running an astonishing 12 degrees above normal for the month," AccuWeather wrote.
"The trend to lower temperatures will begin in the upper atmosphere, as a dip in the jet stream moves ashore and becomes centered over the West," Mike LeSeney, AccuWeather senior meteorologist, said. "As temperatures aloft cool down, the air at ground level will follow suit."
In the Pacific Northwest, this change happened fast. After the weekend's hot and blustery weather, rain arrived in some parts of Portland early Monday, Sept. 12. The Portland metro region's air quality was listed as "moderate," with a better air quality index than on Sunday.
In Seattle, where temperatures surged into the 90s on Saturday, the mercury only reached 72 F to close out the weekend. Through much of this week, temperatures will hover in the low 70s once again, which is near average for mid-September.
The new Wildfire Mitigation Plan was prompted by climate change, which is contributing to drier summers and longer fire seasons. It was the result of a 2019 report by the Governor's Council on Wildfire Response, which caused Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to issue an executive order on March 10, 2020, that directed state agencies to take actions to reduce and regulate greenhouse gasses. As part of that, the PUC was directed to "evaluate electric companies' risk-based wildfire protection plans and planned activities to protect public safety, reduce risks to utility customers, and promote energy system resilience in the face of increased wildfire frequency and severity."
"Extreme fire weather can clearly happen throughout Oregon," PUC Commissioner Letha Tawney said when the plan was adopted. "Implementing a PSPS is a complex decision that impacts communities including use of home medical devices, access to 911 services, and the ability to pump water. However, it's a tool in the utility's tool kit to help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, if they determine necessary."
These new rules also lay out specific communication requirements for the utilities to inform public safety partners, state agencies, local jurisdictions, and the public of the need to implement a PSPS to mitigate wildfire risk, as well as provide updates at least every 24 hours until service is restored.
The order can be found here.
KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune and contributed to this article.