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More Utilities Plan to Use Blackouts to Prevent Wildfires

A Nevada utility company is joining utilities in other western states in implementing a new measure to reduce the risk of wildfire.
Smoke and flames from the Carpenter 1 fire are seen along a ridgeline in the Spring Mountains range early on July 6th, 2013, in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Nevada.

Like other western states, Nevada is facing increasingly severe wildfires.

A Nevada utility that serves nearly 1.3 million customers announced it plans to shut off power in high-risk areas in the state if extreme fire conditions occur. NV Energy joins at least four other utilities in fire-prone western states that are turning to this new strategy to prevent wildfires.

NV Energy said changes in climate that have increased wildfire risk led the utility to implement the new plan, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The energy company said the Public Safety Outage Management plan is intended as a last resort and that weather conditions, vegetation, wind speed, and the location of existing fires will all be factored into the decision to shut off power to an area.

The use of blackouts to mitigate wildfire risk is gaining traction with utility companies. California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, first implemented an outage last October in parts of Northern California after the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag warning for the region. California's other major utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, as well as Oregon-based Pacific Power, are also turning to planned outages as a wildfire mitigation strategy.

The move to implement outage plans comes as utilities are facing increased pressure to take preventative action after several wildfires, including the Camp Fire, were linked to downed power lines during windstorms. Kate Wheeling wrote for Pacific Standard about PG&E's use of outages this fire season and some of the pushback to the strategy:

Consumer groups raised concerns that the days-long outages come with risks of their own, especially for the elderly or those with special medical needs, many of whom rely on electricity to power medical devices. The Public Utilities Commission's approval requires PG&E to work with the California Office of Emergency Services to adequately notify the public and emergency services ahead of proactive power outages.

It's still unclear how effective outages will be in preventing wildfires. (The California Public Utilities Commission is currently evaluating the effectiveness of outages and other new wildfire mitigation plans.) But whether or not outages are a successful tool, destructive and costly wildfires are something utility companies are going to need to learn to adapt to as studies continue to find that wildfire severity is likely to increase in the coming decades.