Sandy • Gary Hadfield and his wife have lived in their home at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon for 22 years, and a wildfire has never approached their house.
But Hadfield, who enjoys showing off the trees in his backyard and the mountains covered in scrub oak, knows a fire is a possibility. He keeps a chain-link ladder under his bed so he and his wife, Susan, can escape their second-story bedroom if flames reach the house. And he’s OK with a plan to shut off electricity to his home on days when the threat of a wildfire is precariously high.
“What choice do we have?” Hadfield said, noting that traffic in the canyon could bottleneck in an evacuation.
The Hadfields could be one of 5,700 Utah households and businesses whose electricity could be shut off when the wildfire danger is high. Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest electrical provider, unveiled a map earlier this year of possible preventive outages with Hadfield’s neighborhood in it.
The utility never initiated such a blackout, but some customers were warned a few days in advance of the possibility, including a handful of Cedar City residents in September.
Other Utah locations on the map of possible outages include portions of Cedar Highlands (south of Cedar City), Cottonwood Heights, Hideout, Millcreek, Park City, Sandy, and parts of unincorporated Iron, Salt Lake, Summit, Utah and Wasatch counties.
Customers in the potential blackout zones are largely inside or adjacent to forests or thick grasses.
Rocky Mountain Power’s plans are far narrower than in California, where, at the height of the blackouts, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut power to 2.5 million people. Yet Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Spencer Hall said the Utah utility would cut electricity for the same reasons PG&E has — to lessen the chance of igniting a wildfire, to protect public safety and to reduce the company’s liability.
PG&E is seeking bankruptcy protection because its equipment has been found as the cause of fires in 2017 and 2018.
"Everyone saw what happened in California,” Hall said. “Every Western utility saw that and is responding in some way."
Hall said a red flag warning alone wouldn’t be enough to shut off electricity. Rocky Mountain Power, he said, would consider other factors such as the amount of fuels in a given area and how strong the winds would be.
Wind can be an especially potent factor in causing electrical equipment to spark and ignite a fire, Hall said. Overhead lines can be blown into one another, creating arcing; tree branches can be knocked into lines; or backyard items like trampolines can become debris and sail into electrical cables.
Customers in the potential shut-off zones were notified earlier this year by mailings, Hall said, and Rocky Mountain Power posted local notices and held open houses. There’s a website discussing the protocols for the shut-offs. The utility encouraged customers with electric medical devices to have a plan in place if the power goes out.
"We didn't want to just shut the power down,” Hall said, “but we wanted [shut-offs] as a tool in our toolkit."
In Park City, the potential blackouts could cover an area roughly from the town’s west side at Park City Mountain Resort south to Guardsman Pass. The Masonic Hill and Park Meadows neighborhoods also could lose power.
Mike McComb, emergency manager for Park City, has had discussions with Rocky Mountain Power about its protocols. He said shutting off power on certain red flag days would be a “prudent” plan.
“I would also like them not to start a fire,” McComb said. "For us, a wildfire would be an economic disaster.”
Back at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Stephanie Bee lives with her husband and adult daughter. Bee has family in California whose electricity has been cut to reduce wildfire risks.
“Here," Bee sad, “I just never really thought this would be an area where we would be too concerned about” wildfire.
She’s all right with shutting off her power as a preventive measure, depending on how long the electricity would be out. Her family would be fine for a few days but not necessarily weeks.
On its website, Rocky Mountain Power says customers could receive up to seven days’ notice of a shutdown. More notices would follow as a potential outage nears. Power would be restored, the website says, when “extreme wildfire conditions have abated” and “all lines are cleared.”
The utility says it is taking other steps to reduce wildfire risks, including increased equipment inspections and clearing brush and trees from its rights of way. Hadfield said a crew came to his house about a month ago to remove brush from around a power pole in his backyard.
Besides Rocky Mountain Power, Utah has a handful of other electrical utilities. Yankton Johnson, the assistant general manager at Moon Lake Electric, which provides power to a swath of eastern Utah and western Colorado, wrote in an email that the cooperative has started discussions about preventive blackouts, but it does not yet have any plans to switch off power on days with high fire danger.
Garkane Energy Cooperative has about 14,000 customers in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Its CEO, Dan McClendon, said it has no plans for blackouts, but, for the past two years, it has implemented other fire precautions.
When certain parts of its service area encounter red flag days, Garkane boosts the sensitivity of its equipment to detect arcs and automatically halt power. After such a shut-off, electricity must be restored manually rather than allowing automated systems to restore power. McClendon said that lets Garkane crews determine whether the electricity should stay off.
McClendon said those protocols are meant to protect safety and reduce the likelihood Garkane, a member cooperative, would be sued and have to declare bankruptcy like PG&E.
“Bankruptcy really means our members lose it for themselves,” McClendon said, “because there are no other owners. They are the owners.”