Officials: Power lines may have sparked 13 Santiam Canyon fires

Wildfires

Powerful winds Sept. 7 and 8 knocked down power lines as the Beachie Creek Fire burned above Detroit

GATES, Ore. (KOIN) — State fire officials say downed power lines may have sparked at least 13 additional fires in the Santiam Canyon area during the windstorm earlier this month.

Witnesses told KOIN 6 News strong winds knocked down a power line on Sept. 7 just hours before the Beachie Creek Fire reached the town of Gates. The downed line energized a cyclone fence and started a fire that took out an entire firefighting camp setup just the day before.

The historic Gates school building, which is now a Christian youth camp, also burned in the same fire.

Meanwhile, the Beachie Creek Fire — which had already been burning for weeks above Detroit — was racing through the Santiam Canyon, whipped on by the windstorm.

State fire officials said Tuesday they’re looking into at least 13 separate fires that may have sparked from power lines in the canyon.

“People farther down in the canyon were complaining that the power was not shut off early enough and the power lines may have caused some of the fires lower in the canyon,” said Dave Shively whose Detroit home was destroyed by the wildfire.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission told KOIN 6 News individual utility companies are responsible for managing emergency power shut offs.

“The regulated utilities are required to proactively manage emerging safety and reliability risks such as wildfire, earthquake or cybersecurity threats,” the Oregon Public Utility Commission replied in a statement. “With regard to wildfire, the utilities have recently adopted the use of a Public Safety Power Shut Offs (PSPS) to help keep people and communities in high consequence fire-risk areas safe by proactively shutting off electricity during extreme and dangerous weather conditions that might result in catastrophic wildfires. The utility—not the [Oregon Public Utility Commission]—makes the decision whether to initiate a PSPS based on its detailed knowledge of its equipment and facilities and local weather, wind and humidity conditions, and does so in close coordination with local emergency managers.”

KOIN 6 News reached out to multiple utilities companies operating in the Santiam Canyon area for comment.

“We have served Gates for nearly a century. We are a part of this community and are devastated by the impact this event has had on our friends, neighbors and our own employees,” Pacific Power replied in a statement. “We will continue to provide support here and throughout the state as we all move to recovery efforts. The winds that blew through the Santiam Canyon were atypical and very different and much faster-moving from what we would normally see. Pacific Power did not perform a Public Safety Power Shutoff prior to the historic windstorm. However, we did de-energize lines at the request of local emergency agencies to allow firefighters to do their jobs safely. Pacific Power developed and implemented a wildfire mitigation plan in 2018 that includes substantive resiliency measures such as system hardening, rigorous vegetation management, fire-weather monitoring and Public Safety Power Shutoffs. Communities in Santiam Canyon are not in a designated Public Safety Power Shutoff area. Our Public Safety Power Shutoff areas are located in parts of Douglas, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine and Wasco counties (You can view a map here). Those areas were selected based on 10 years of historical data and include considerations of past fire behavior, topology, wind speed and directionality, fuel loading, real-time observations and public safety risk. We are fully cooperating with state and federal authorities to understand all the contributing factors from this historic event.”

Power was shut off in several other parts of Oregon, including areas near Mt. Hood and Medford. State officials say they’re in the early stages of their investigation.

KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.

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