Idaho Power ready to shut off service in high-risk areas if wildfire seasons worsen

Darin Oswald

Idaho Power is implementing a new strategy to mitigate wildfires in its service area.

Under the new Public Safety Power Shutoff program, the utility is prepared to shut down power in nine geographic areas with high wildfire risk if it detects extreme weather and fire conditions.

Though Idaho Power officials didn’t say whether they expect to institute the shutoff this summer, they said they’re ready to take the precaution in cases of severe conditions.

“This is a last resort-only type of thing,” Sven Berg, spokesperson for Idaho Power, told the Idaho Statesman. “We wouldn’t do this in any kind of cavalier fashion.”

The nine zones at risk for public safety power shutoff serve about 5,000 Idaho Power customers — less than 1% of the customer base, Berg said.

The vulnerable zones lie northeast of Boise along the Boise National Forest, in the Pine and Featherville area, and by Pocatello. These areas have high structural density, meaning that a wildfire could damage housing and other buildings. The zones also have vegetation, weather patterns, and fire history that increase wildfire risk.

Each zone can be de-energized individually, Jon Axtman, senior manager of transmission and distribution engineering and reliability at Idaho Power, told the Statesman. Depending on the weather event, Idaho Power could turn off power in one zone or a combination of zones.

Power lines have ignited large fires in the West. In 2018, electrical transmission lines sparked California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, which killed 85 civilians and destroyed over 18,000 structures. In 2021, electrical lines caused the state’s second-largest wildfire, which burned nearly 1 million acres.

Although Idaho’s weather differs from other Western states, officials said the goal of the power shutoff program is to prepare for extreme weather.

“We are seeing more extreme conditions over the last 20 to 30 years,” Axtman said.

Every day, Idaho Power forecasts fire potential to determine whether a power shutoff is necessary, Axtman said. They look for warning factors such as high winds, high temperatures, and dry vegetation.

If a public safety power shutoff is needed, Idaho Power will notify customers in the affected areas with the contact information they have on file.

The duration of a potential shutoff would vary based on the weather event and time required to check the system’s safety, Axtman said.

Idaho Power is taking precautions to avoid a power shutoff, such as managing vegetation and performing maintenance in high-risk zones.

More information on preparing for a public safety power shutoff event and updating contact information with Idaho Power can be found here.