City Light helps put out the fire3 January 2019
Seattle City Light has been recognised for its Skagit hydroelectric project wildfire mitigation plan. Nathan MacDonald gives more details.
Seattle is known for its global leadership in technology and has served as a hub for innovation for more than a century. But beyond its city limits lies the generation that powers these ideas; an innovation all its own. A little over 130 miles northeast of Seattle’s bustling urban landscape are the majestic views of the North Cascades National Park Complex and ultimately the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. Located in what is often called the American Alps, this idyllic project consists of a system of dams that supplies more than 30% of Seattle City Light’s power requirements.
City Light has generated hydroelectricity in the North Cascades for more than 100 years, and with the effects of climate change becoming ever more present in Western Washington, wildfires and other natural disasters pose a considerable threat to the Skagit project and the surrounding communities. Today, City Light and local emergency management agencies in the region are looking forward to new procedures while looking back at lessons learned from close calls to proactively address these now-normalised threats.
In May 2018, the National Hydropower Association awarded City Light the 2018 Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Public Education Award for its five-year plan for wildfire mitigation to protect historical and critical infrastructure. The mitigation plan was formed through the collaboration of local emergency management experts, community members, a climate adaptation specialist and City Light employees to protect its generation assets. The plan, even in its formulaic state, proved to be successful and served as a reminder of why safety should always be a top priority for the utility.
Creating the plan
City Light’s previous mitigation plan was designed to increase the awareness for the utility and its employees. As the plan circulated, Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade Chief and City Light employee Cody Watson and other Skagit Project workgroups continued to expand it. Since the towns near the Skagit Project, Diablo and Newhalem, mostly consist of City Light employees and their families, community collaboration and buy-in became a vital facet of adopting the plan.
“After receiving support from key executive stakeholders, we had the institutional support to reach out and begin to work with the community to build the mitigation plan,” explained Watson. “Being so remote and away from outsides resources, having our neighbors prepared helps us be more resilient in an emergency.”
Initially, there was pushback since it was anecdotally known that wildfires hadn’t been a threat to this area of Western Washington state. Eventually, others took note and began this mitigation mindset and were ready to collaborate and create this new plan.
Goodell Creek Fire
As the five-year plan began to take shape, mitigation practices already implemented from that plan such as trimming the vegetation around infrastructure, were put to the test by one of the largest fires the Skagit project and its communities have ever faced.
In 2015, lightning struck Ross Mountain in the North Cascades National Park, less than a mile away from the Skagit project. The combination of the blaze engulfing the area in flames and the limited amount of aid and resources put the project at risk. As the fire reached the boundaries of City Light’s facilities, the utility evacuated all employees, residents and visitors from Diablo and two of its powerhouses. The utility also provided support to leave the surrounding resorts, park centers and small towns within the area. Nearly 20 days later, the fire was contained thanks to more than 300 volunteer fire fighters and a line of rain showers that came through the area. All told, the Goodell Creek Fire burned more than 8000 acres and cost the utility US$2.2M in damages, response and labour, along with US$900,000 of power purchases and generation loss. Thankfully, no significant injuries were reported.
Following the Goodell Creek Fire, community collaboration became even more prevalent while developing the five-year plan. Watson and his team established evacuation procedures, so both City Light employees and citizens of Diablo and Newhalem knew what to do in the event of an emergency. While the traditional fliers and communiqués to inform a community of a process like an evacuation are essential, Watson wanted to take it a step further to ensure that they would be ready to evacuate in a moment’s notice. He wanted to create a safety video that engages the audience while educating them on the evacuation protocol. After months of filming using only City Light employees as the acting talent, editing and collaboration with City Light’s Communication division two hours south in Seattle, the film “Escape from Diablo” was ready for release.
Then, the idea continued to grow. After discussions with the owner of the Concrete Theater in Concrete in Washington (population of 729), about 40 minutes from the Skagit Project, City Light began to plan a world-premiere showing and safety event for City Light employees and the community. The event included touch-a-truck for the kids, safety tips from local agencies for the parents and a time for the utility to connect with its neighbors. The premiere included two showings of the 12-minute film, followed by a panel discussion with local emergency management officials and a climatologist from the University of Washington to discuss the current protocols and the increasing threat of wildfires in the area due to climate change. The audience cheered as their co-workers made their appearances on screen and wanted to know how more of how they could prepare in case of an emergency.
Creating your plan
Creating a mitigation plan like City Light’s requires a combination of collaboration while forecasting future emergencies before they materialise. If your team doesn’t have all the answers, be ready to search them out.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” explains Watson. “Reach out to local fire departments to establish realistic response capabilities in your area. Find out how land management agencies would respond if there were a fire threatening critical infrastructure and then define your critical infrastructure ahead of time. There are programmes out there to help with these issues and agencies that would gladly lend a hand, but you have to start asking around.”
This lens of mitigation now guides the practices of City Light and Watson’s team to ensure that the employees and the community can stay informed and ready for an emergency.
Nathan MacDonald, Senior Public Relations Specialist, Seattle City Light.
To learn more about City Light’s hydroelectric projects, visit www.seattle.gov/light.
About the Skagit Hydroelectric Project
The Skagit Hydroelectric Project is in Whatcom County, Washington state. The three power-generating dams, Ross, Diablo and Gorge, are hydraulically coordinated to act as a single project operating 12 synchronous generators at these plants and generating up to 800MW of energy, while providing instream flow conditions favorable to endangered Bull Trout, salmon and steelhead reproduction and rearing downstream of Skagit. All three of the dams are upstream of a natural barrier to fish passage. The Skagit Project is nearly entirely within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service as part of the North Cascades National Park Complex.
In 2003, the Skagit Project was the first large hydroelectric facility in the nation to be certified as a Low Impact Hydropower Project by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, an independent non-profit organisation that certifies environmentally responsible, low impact hydro projects.
The Skagit Project is just one of City Light’s hydroelectric projects in its portfolio. The Boundary Hydroelectric Project is the largest producer of hydropower for City Light. Nestled in the northeastern corner of Washington state, this project’s capacity is 1,117.4MW, more than half of City Light’s hydro. The total combined generation capacity of the City Light’s hydroelectric plants is 1850MW. 90% of City Light’s power used by Seattle residents is generated by hydro, while the remaining 10% is generated by other renewable energy sources lauding it as one of the greenest utility’s in the nation.