Rocky Mountain Power dumps wildfire plan after it draws fire from state foresters

The plan used 2010 census data, 2014 fuels data and 2017 climate data, likely lowballing the fire risk.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter makes drops on a wildfire east of Tooele. Friday July 27, 2018. Utah's largest electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power, had to pull back its wildfire management plan after foresters from the state pointed out weaknesses.

Rocky Mountain Power has withdrawn its state-required wildfire mitigation plan eight days after state forestry officials found the plan relied on outdated information – including 13-year-old U.S. Census data – that likely underestimates the wildfire risks along Rocky Mountain’s power lines.

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFLS) said that Rocky Mountain’s 137-page 2023-25 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, which it is required to submit to the Utah Public Service Commission, used three outdated data sources:

Census data from 2010: The state division noted that Utah has been the fastest growing state in the country in the last 13 years, and the 2010 data understates Utah’s population by more than half a million. “By relying on 2010 U.S. Census data, the plan likely omits significant new construction in the wildland urban interface,” the division’s letter to the PSC said.

“LandFire” fuels data from 2014: “LandFire datasets from 2020 and 2022 are available and would better reflect the current fuelscape,” the letter said.

Climatology and historic fire weather days data from 2017: “A new data pull or refresh would give better insight into our most recent climate data,” the letter said.

The division offered its own map of high-risk areas near Rocky Mountain’s Power lines to compare to the utility’s map of “Fire High Consequence Areas,” and the differences are striking. Large portions of land near Rocky Mountain’s transmission lines are considered a 10-out-of-10 fire risk in the state’s map.

“Comparing the PacifiCorp (Rocky Mountain) Power Line Risk Map produced by FFLS with the FHCA Map included in the plan demonstrates that RMP’s reliance on outdated data has excluded significant areas of high wildfire risk,” the division’s letter said.

The Salt Lake Tribune

Only every five years

Rocky Mountain blamed its five-year cycle for updating analytics. “Utah FFSL rightly points out that our data sets precede 2019, primarily because our analytics for fire high‐risk areas undergo updates every five years, with the latest refresh scheduled for 2023,” said RMP spokesperson Jonathan Whitesides in a statement to The Tribune. “The schedule for filing the 2023 Utah Wildland Fire Protection Plan did not coincide with the availability of refreshed data sets for Fire High Consequence Areas (FHCAs). However, our upcoming 2023 data sets will incorporate the most recent census, climatological data, and historical fire weather days.”

Whitesides also said Rocky Mountain is scheduled to meet with division officials on Dec. 4 to discuss the questions raised by the state.

“The State Forester’s letter has highlighted differences in the modeling tools, data sets, and methodologies used by Rocky Mountain Power and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL). This indicates a need for closer alignment and understanding between our approaches.”

The foresters’ letter also noted that RMP’s plan included an illustration it said was an area near Cedar City when it was actually Mount Shasta, Calif. Whitesides said Pacificorp prepares fire plans for several states including California, and the Mount Shasta image was intended for that state’s fire plan.

This image from Rocky Mountain Power's wildfire plan was labeled as "near Cedar City" but was actually Mount Shasta, Calif.

Trying again

The state division filed its letter on Nov. 9. On Nov. 17 Rocky Mountain filed a motion to withdraw its plan and cancel the schedule of reviews it would face. “The company requests the Commission vacate the schedule in this proceeding in order to allow the company to work with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands to make revisions to the Wildland Fire Protection Plan,” the motion states. The PSC granted that motion Tuesday.

Under a state law passed in 2020, all electric utilities in Utah must file a wildland fire protection plan every three years. The plans must include a description of lands at higher risk for wildfire, the procedures the utilities use to detect and address wildfires, plans for vegetation management and other preventive measures, and procedures for shutting off and restoring power in the event of fire.

The law also requires that the Public Service Commission seek input from the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands on all wildfire plans.

In its letter, the division pointed Rocky Mountain to the detailed data bases the state maintains, including the “Wildfire Hazard Potential” and “Wildfire Suppression Difficulty Index” datasets. Those data are defined as public records under the Government Records Access Management act and are available to RMP.

Rocky Mountain Power is by far the largest electric utility in the state, serving about 80% of Utah households. Its parent company, PacifiCorp, operates in six western states, with about 44% of its customers in Utah.

‘A really scary situation’

The plan’s quick withdrawal comes as Rocky Mountain and PacifiCorp are confronting the blossoming risk associated with power lines in fire-prone areas of the West, a risk that is growing as climate change produces a hotter, drier landscape. Rocky Mountain CEO Gary Hoogeveen told The Tribune in September that the wildfire problem is “a really scary situation. We want to talk more about it. It’s bigger than one company or one state. It’s an issue for the entire West.”

Last summer, a court in Oregon found the company liable for four wildfires in Oregon during 2020. Oregon residents had sued PacifiCorp, claiming that the company was negligent and creating a nuisance when it failed to shut off power during a Labor Day windstorm. The case was ruled a class action, meaning a settlement could be extended to thousands of people affected by the fire, potentially raising PacifiCorp’s liability to billions of dollars.

The company is appealing the verdict, but it has also begun efforts to fund the eventual settlement. Earlier this year it filed a request with the Utah PSC to start accounting for wildfire liability. It later withdrew the request, but Hoogeveen did not rule out later seeking to recover some Oregon liability costs from Utah ratepayers.

Rocky Mountain also this summer filed a request to account for a dramatic increase in insurance costs related to wildfire claims. The company said its insurance costs have gone from $10 million to $125 million. That request is being reviewed by stakeholders, including the Utah Office of Consumer Services, which represents Rocky Mountain’s Utah customers at the PSC.

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