Utility-Caused Wildfires Are Becoming a National Problem

After a utility pole fell and ignited a wildfire, Frank King and his family raced to escape as electrical transformers exploded around their homes near Oregon’s coast. A bright red glow was visible in the rearview mirror for miles.

The fire three and a half years ago destroyed 300 homes in Otis, Ore., including the one that Mr. King, a 101-year-old veteran of World War II, had lived in for almost three decades.

“A lot of the things that reminded me of the good things in my life are gone,” said Mr. King, who believes things might have turned out differently had his utility, PacifiCorp, turned off its power lines before a severe windstorm. “It takes a terrible toll on me.”

Large wildfires started by power lines and other utility equipment were, not that long ago, considered something that happened mostly in California. But these disasters are increasingly happening in many more places as forces turbocharged by climate change like extreme heat and drought wreak havoc on electric grids that were not built or upgraded to withstand them.

Xcel Energy, a utility company based in Minneapolis, recently acknowledged that its equipment most likely started the Smokehouse Creek Fire last month in the Texas Panhandle. In August, Hawaiian Electric said one of its power lines had ignited the devastating fire in Lahaina on the island of Maui. And this month, a jury ordered PacifiCorp to pay $42 million to 10 families that lost homes in the fire that forced Mr. King to flee his house on Labor Day weekend in 2020.

In all these cases, the utilities argued that they were not negligent and should not be penalized for the fires that their equipment had started.

Most climate experts expect global warming to make wildfires much more likely, even in places that were not previously considered at risk, like rainforests and wetlands. While wildfires can be ignited in many ways, utilities with their networks of wires and transformers are a big source of worry.

The industry says it is working to reduce the risk of fires with various approaches, including burying power lines, a very expensive option, and using cheaper tools such as sensors and software to cut off the power when fires are likely.

But critics of the industry, including homeowners and some lawmakers, say the industry is not doing enough to prevent such fires.

“There’s this unwillingness in this industry to adapt,” said Cody Berne, a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who represents Mr. King and other wildfire survivors. “It’s criminal incompetence.”

Utility executives say the rapid escalation of climate-driven disasters has made it difficult to manage millions of miles of towers, poles and wires in a more-than-100-year-old system.

“Past risk is not really a good indicator of future risk anymore,” said Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group. “We are seeing a rapid change in the extreme severe weather. It is daunting.”

Electricity costs have risen sharply in recent years as utilities have responded to extreme weather and rising energy demand. The industry is spending billions of dollars to bury power lines, cover wires, trim and remove trees and shrubs, and buy weather stations, cameras and other equipment to better monitor and control power equipment.

But not every response to climate change has to be expensive. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that the risk of utility-caused wildfires could be reduced as much 75 percent by using sensors already in place at many utilities and upgrading the companies’ software systems.

Those changes would automatically shut off parts of the utility’s network within milliseconds when tree limbs, animals or other objects caused problems on power lines. Using this technology, known as fast trip, is far cheaper and easier than putting power lines underground, an approach that several large Western utilities are also pursuing.

It can cost $3 million to $4 million per mile to bury power lines. Such projects can take years to be approved, developed and completed. By comparison, fast trip technology runs about $5,000 to $10,000 a mile, including installing equipment and sending utility crews to inspect circuits before power is restored, the Berkeley researchers said.

“There’s opportunities for innovation that could continue driving risk down,” said Duncan Callaway, professor of energy and resources at the university.

Mr. Callaway has been analyzing the wildfire prevention efforts and costs of Pacific Gas & Electric, which has 5.5 million electricity customers, more than any other utility in a single state. While PG&E and other utilities in the West use fast trip, which he calls “a no-brainer,” Mr. Callaway said he did not know how many others did so.

Arshad Mansoor, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Research Institute, agrees that fast trip is an important solution, but he added that other tools, such as low-orbit satellites, could help utilities quickly detect problems and assess conditions without cutting power.

“The first thing we need to do is get this early-warning system globally,” Mr. Mansoor said.

In Oregon, neither automated technology nor utility employees pre-emptively cut the power that September weekend in 2020 even though forecasters had warned for days about torrential winds and 90-degree heat. A falling power pole ignited a fire on Echo Mountain near the coast in central Oregon. It was one of 30 fires that burned 1.2 million acres in the state that weekend, killing nine people and destroying 5,000 homes and businesses.

Jim Holland, a 40-year-old chef, lost the home that he and his wife, Briana, had bought — their first — just nine months earlier. The Hollands and Mr. King, a neighbor, have rebuilt with insurance money and other aid, but they have also filed lawsuits seeking compensation from PacifiCorp. Many in the community are still so traumatized that they are unnerved by any plume of smoke that wafts by, even if it’s just from a barbecue. The area is still scarred by mudslides, charred power poles and burned trees with peeling bark.

“It just feels like we’re living in rubble,” Mr. Holland said. “It’s not what it was. There are people with a glazed look, wondering what happened to their lives.”

For many residents of Oregon, it has been hard to fathom how a state known for its rainforests became a tinderbox.

Last year, a wildfire ripped through a critical rainforest that includes a watershed that supplies water to a million people in the Portland metropolitan area and to a hydroelectric dam.

“If you have been here a long time, as I have, you can see climate change is real,” said Mingus Mapps, a Portland city commissioner who oversees water, transportation and environmental services. “It was a once-in-a-thousand-year fire. It was terrifying.”

A lightning strike ignited that fire. But Mr. Mapps, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said the city was also worried about the fire risk of power equipment.

For utilities, the fires also pose potentially crippling financial risks from lawsuits filed by homeowners and their insurance companies. PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after amassing billions of dollars in liability from several wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif.

Mr. Aaronson, the industry trade group executive, said utilities had learned from California’s traumatic wildfires. But he noted that utility equipment caused less than 10 percent of the wildfires across the country.

“We’re working to drive that down further,” Mr. Aaronson said. “There are tens of thousands of miles of transmission infrastructure. There are millions of miles of distribution.”

Extreme weather has made it difficult to ensure that every part of the power system is ready for climate change. One upgrade some companies are making is greater use of fast trip technology.

PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, said it had started using the technology for wildfire prevention in 2021, the year after the Echo Mountain wildfire, though the technology had been around for many years.

But use of tools like fast trip or public-safety power shut-offs, which California utilities have used when fire risk in an area is expected to be high, can be unpopular because they leave residents and businesses without electricity. Utilities say they prefer approaches that keep the lights on.

Allen Berreth, vice president for operations over wildfire mitigation for PacifiCorp, said that while the company was using fast trip and other tools, it also planned to bury many more power lines.

“Undergrounding means there’s no public safety power shut-offs,” Mr. Berreth said.

Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive, Warren E. Buffett, told investors in February that he expected wildfire losses at his company’s utility subsidiaries to rise in the coming years. He also warned that utilities would need to spend a lot more money on fire prevention — spending that energy experts say will drive up electricity rates.

“The final result for the utility industry may be ominous,” Mr. Buffett said. “When the dust settles, America’s power needs and the consequent capital expenditure will be staggering.”