Repaired power pole

Repairs to a power pole just outside Wallowa Elementary School along 2nd Street are evident. The top of the pole burst into flame Saturday, Sept. 7, when electricity from the line arced to the dry pole after a dry spell and a heavy downpour, according to Wallowa Fire Chief Gary Hulse. Pacific Power & Light replaced the top portion of the pole and the crossmember.

In spite of an incident in Wallowa where a power pole appeared to spontaneously burst into flame in August, officials in Wallowa County don’t believe power lines that run along remote rural roads and across the landscape present a major threat of wildfire.

The concern about power lines and wildfire stems from the catastrophic fires ignited by faulty PG&E power lines in northern California in the last two years. They include the 2018 Camp Fire which burned {span}153,336{/span} acres, destroyed 18,800 structures, including 95% of the town of Paradise, and killed 85 people. Most recently PG&E shut down power to more than 2 million people for up to five days because high winds threatened to snap power lines and thus set fires in the dry north-central California landscape.

The Aug. 11 incident in Wallowa involved a power pole just outside Wallowa Elementary School along 2nd Street that had become particularly dry after a long, dry summer. When a heavy rainstorm hit, electricity arced from the power lines to the dry pole, igniting it, Wallowa Mayor and Fire Chief Gary Hulse said.

The crossmember and the top several feet of the pole burned. They’ve now been replaced and it’s operating normally, Hulse said.

The second power pole incident occurred Sept. 7, at 303 N. Spruce in Wallowa. Electricity was seen to arc repeatedly for 5 to 10 seconds from a ground wire to the wooden pole but there was no fire.

With both being in such conspicuous places, they were noticed and reported quickly. Local fire crews prevented the first blaze from reaching buildings while crews from PP&L arrived to attend to the electrical fixtures. Fire crews were on hand for the second incident, awaiting PP&L.

“We try to keep our firefighters away from such things … all we do is keep it from spreading,” Hulse said.

“They were just two strange fires this year,” he said. “There hasn’t been much of a problem other than those.”

But what if such a blaze erupted out in the woods where no human eyes were readily available?

Matt Howard, of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that a fire detection camera was installed on a 150-foot-tall tower on Howard Butte north of Wallowa that can see a radius of 25 to 30 miles.

“It covers a pretty good chunk of ground,” he said.

He’s hoping the department can get funding to install more such cameras in the county.

David Weaver, also of the ODF, said the camera can see into the Grande Ronde Valley and is monitored by the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Redmond. If a fire is detected, the center will contact the appropriate response teams.

He’s also hoping to see improved technology in the cameras.

“Currently it’s no match for the human eye,” he said.

Weaver said the camera has reported some smoke, but so far, all alerts have proven to be legal burns.

Drew Hanson, public information officer for Pacific Power & Light, which owns and maintains most of the power lines in the county, said PP&L has crews regularly patrolling and monitoring their lines. Most of those lines come from major transmission lines from Snake River dams that go to power users in the county.

Paul Karvoski, fire chief for Wallowa County and the city of Enterprise, said the lines from the dams are owned by Idaho Power or Avista Power and route power to a facility north of Enterprise.

He said fire incidents from those lines have been known to occur, “but they’re rare.”

Karvoski said most fires are grass fires.

“Here in the valley, we have grass fires a lot of times when large birds hit the wire with a wing, the bird gets fried and falls to the ground starting a fire,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you the last time” there was a fire related to a faulty power line or pole.

He said the large power lines from the dams are about half on private land and half on U.S. Forest Service land.

Nathan Goodrich, USFS fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Joseph, said Idaho Power and Avista do a good job maintaining their lines and there have been only a handful of large fires in recent years and none this year. A large fire is defined, he said, as 100 acres of timber or 300 acres of grassland. The last big fire year for the county was 2014, when there were 11 large fires reported. None of these were related to electrical line malfunction.

He said he knew of one fire in 2008 in Imnaha Canyon that may — or may not — have been power line-related, but most fires have been lightning caused.

All officials spoke highly of the maintenance work PP&L, Idaho Power and Avista do on their lines.

Hanson said in a statement “Pacific Power’s priority is delivering safe, reliable electricity to our customers. To do this, we deploy a maintenance and inspection program. In addition to scheduled inspections as part of the program, we are constantly evaluating the grid and the nearly 500 miles of line that run throughout Wallowa County as we do our daily jobs.”

Efforts he listed as examples include prioritizing and working on power outages, keeping vegetation away from power lines and poles, having contractors regularly check pole bases and tracking outages/fires caused by birds. This later item can be addressed by installing special avian deflectors.

PP&L customers are urged to visit at pacificpower.net/outages-safety to learn more safety and outage preparedness tips.

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