Rocky Mountain Power may shut off power during this week’s red flag weather

(Mike Rank | FOX 13) The Range Fire burns in Provo Canyon on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Extreme fire weather is forecast this week for Utah's Wasatch Mountains, prompting Rocky Mountain Power to consider shutting off power to Sundance and Summit Park to reduce the chances of electrical equipment triggering a wildfire in those communities.

Some northern Utah residents could experience preemptive electrical outages later this week when strong dry winds are expected to create extreme wildfire conditions in the Wasatch Mountains.

Summit Park and Sundance are two mountain communities where power could get shut off under a new program designed to reduce the chance of electrical transmission equipment triggering a fire, according to Rocky Mountain Power.

“The measure would only be used as a last resort to help ensure community safety,” the utility said in a news release. “Once extreme weather conditions have subsided, Rocky Mountain Power will complete line inspections and re-energize the lines.”

Last year, Rocky Mountain Power unveiled its Public Safety Power Shutoff program, outlining neighborhoods in its service area where service could be cut during dry windy weather events.

“We are watching all through the weekend. It looks like the storm front is pausing and arriving later,” Hall said. “This is a watch at this point. We haven’t reached a point where we are calling for a shutdown.”

Historically, the Wasatch’s fire season winds down by early September, as cool damp weather returns to the mountains. But Utah’s fire season has been arriving early and lasting longer in recent years, likely due to changes to global climate systems.

This week, gunfire at a police shooting range in Provo Canyon ignited the Range Fire, which has charred 3,500 acres on Mount Timpanogos’ southwestern flank at the mouth of the canyon, according to the Utah Fire Info website. Fire crews contained about a third of the fire as of Wednesday.

Utah has largely escaped the epic fire season plaguing other Western states, yet it has been a banner year for human-caused fires. About 78% of Utah’s fires so far this year, or 1,138, were caused by human activities, often target shooting and abandoned campfires, according to Kait Webb, fire spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Only a few were caused by electrical transmission equipment.

“Red flag” conditions are forecast to hit northern Utah on Wednesday in front of a weather system that will usher in a cool fall storm this weekend, but not much relief.

“Fuels remain very dry, record setting in some locations of the state for this time of year,” Webb said. “No season ending event in the near future [is] showing up in the forecast. The storm system will bring cooler temps this weekend to Utah but very minimal moisture.”

Utah’s main utility, Rocky Mountain Power, developed its shutoff program following California’s catastrophic 2018 wildfire season where electrical utility equipment sparked several destructive fires, including the deadly conflagration that destroyed the Sierra foothill town of Paradise, and sank Pacific Gas and Electric into bankruptcy.

Some 5,700 homes are covered in the Utah power shutoff program, which is focused mostly on neighborhoods in or at the mouths of Wasatch canyons, but also parts of Iron, Wasatch and Summit counties.

In wooded areas, high winds can blow tree branches onto power lines or knock lines into woody debris. Cutting power would eliminate the chances that this equipment will trigger a fire that could quickly spread.

But the utility doesn’t plan to shut off power anytime a red flag warning is issued. Instead it will examine forecasts and conditions at specific locations before determining whether a shutoff is warranted, according to Hall.

“The whole point of the work is to really identify at a granular level the conditions and how best to mitigate risk,” Hall said. “We look at humidity, heat, gusts [and] moisture in the soils.”

Should a shutoff occur this week, it would be the first under Rocky Mountain Power’s fire-prevention program. It plans to provide affected customers plenty of advance notice.

“If you are in one of those communities [at high risk of fire], make sure your profile with the company is updated with your current phone number and email,” Hall urged.