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Isles urged to prepare for wildfire power shutoffs

HONOLULU — This week marked the start of Hawaiian Electric’s program of proactively shutting off power in specified areas to protect the public if and when there is a high risk of wildfires on all the islands it serves.

Those specified areas, mostly on the leeward side of the islands, collectively affecting about 47,000 customers statewide, are mapped out in Hawaiian Electric’s new searchable maps.

Hawaiian Electric came under criticism following the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire, which killed 102 people, because it failed to order a shutdown of power despite warnings from the National Weather Service that conditions were ripe for wildfire under what is called a red flag warning.

Utilities in California and other wildfire-prone areas have implemented similar plans after wildfire disasters.

Now that the Hawaiian Electric Public Safety Power Shutoff Program (PSPS) has been launched, there’s misinformation about HECO’s efforts and questions about how often some residents and businesses could face precautionary outages.

Even after the company held a community meeting June 27 in Leeward O‘ahu, “Many people thought HECO was just shutting our power. That was the interpretation. They’re going to shut off our power starting July 1st. There was a lot of miscommunication,” said Waianae Neighborhood Board Chair Tiana Wilbur.

“But I understand it’s only in a red alert,” she said. “In Lahaina the power lines got disconnected from the winds, and the power never got shut off. The community as a whole, the whole island chain, questioned why they didn’t shut off the power.

“I feel like HECO is hearing what the community is saying,” she said. “I believe they’re taking heed … in being proactive about things.”

However, Wilbur said not reaching out to the community about the best plan of action before launching its power shutoff program resulted in many people being “livid because they got the wrong information.”

Are you in the zone?

Customers can go to the company’s website at hawaiianelectric.com/pspsmaps and plug in their address or the name of a business, school or other site to find out whether they lie in a high-risk zone under Hawaiian Electric’s PSPS program.

“These improved maps were among the most requested features that came up during our meetings with communities to talk about the PSPS program, so we worked hard to provide it as soon as possible,” said Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric vice president, government and community relations and corporate communications. “We hope this new search feature will help people make their own preparations.”

The following are the general PSPS locations, but not all customers within the areas are affected:

O‘ahu: Waianae, Makaha, Nanakuli, Maili and Kaena Point (about 2,700 customers)

Hawai‘i Island: North Hawai‘i between Kohala (below 18-mile marker) and Waikoloa, in West Hawai‘i between Kalaoa and Holualoa, and between Mauna Kea Access Road and Waikii Ranch (about 19,300 customers)

Maui: West Maui, Upcountry, parts of Central and South Maui (about 25,300 customers)

Molokai: parts of central Molokai (about 11 customers)

The company said the borders of the PSPS areas are estimates, and customers outside the PSPS areas but near the borders are advised to also be prepared for possible power shutoffs.

Hawaiian Electric says it will expand the program over time to all high-risk areas on the islands it serves, and will continue to refine the maps to ensure accuracy.

These initial areas identified as being in high-risk zones have the following wildfire risk factors: “Exposure to strong winds, dry conditions, vegetation prone to wildfires and historically higher rates of wildfires,” Hawaiian Electric said.

Other factors include the proximity of electrical infrastructure to areas of dry grass, ingress and egress to an area, and how close the utility’s infrastructure is to developed areas.

“It has more to do with the way electric circuits are configured,” Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai said. “An electric circuit doesn’t necessarily follow a straight line in the layout of the streets or string of customers.”

This can be seen when a power outage occurs. Sometimes neighbors on one side of the street have power, but those across the street don’t, Pai said.

Red flag triggers

So how soon could the first proactive shutoff occur, and how often could some residents and businesses face outages?

National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Wroe said he sees nothing within the next month to indicate red flag warning conditions, but “we’re beginning to see conditions dry out in the state. Most areas have had a good amount of rain in April and May, although some areas of Maui didn’t get as much.”

That rain has helped accelerate growth of fire-prone grasses, and Wroe said the “greenery is starting to dry out, making it receptive to fire.”

“On average, there are about five days per year under a red flag warning” in Hawaii, which the NWS began issuing here in 2008, he said.

For a red flag warning trigger point, the weather serv­ice uses a humidity level of 45% or less for two hours or more and winds of 20 mph as measured at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

“Typically, our conditions in Hawai‘i aren’t that far off,” Wroe said, particularly in the summer, when it is often fairly windy and dry.

What the weather service generally does in the summer under red flag conditions is issue a red flag warning to the leeward areas of all islands since the entire state is under the same weather pattern, he said.

But Pai stressed the utility company is not just using the red flag warning in its decision-making to call for the shutoffs, since he said the NWS thresholds are low.

“We’re looking at wind speeds of 45 mph to 50 mph,” he said, adding the red flag warnings “can indicate winds are building up.”

Hawaiian Electric officials will also consider fire watch warnings, low humidity and observations by observers in the field in making the decision to cut power, Pai said.

Take precautions

Pai said it’s difficult to speculate how long outages could last, since it will depend upon weather conditions, when the winds subside below certain thresholds.

“We know customers want their power back as soon as possible,” he said. “We will go about restoring power, but we need to inspect lines and electrical equipment” to ensure there is no damage and to make repairs where necessary.

“Customers are urged to prepare for emergencies and the possibility of extended power outages during periods of high winds and dry conditions,” Hawaiian Electric said in a news release when the PSPS program launched Monday.

These outages could last several hours, even days, depending on location and extent of damage, possibly requiring ground and aerial inspections, it said.

The Department of Health is urging households, particularly those with members in need of medical devices reliant on electricity, to plan ahead, including finding a temporary relocation out of the outage area if there is insufficient backup power available.

Verizon has said it stands ready to ensure its customers will be able to use their mobile devices during commercial power outages, including PSPS events. The company said it has backup power resources available in the event of a power outage that affects Verizon facilities.

Hawaiian Electric’s website (hawaiianelectric.com/safety-and-outages) also provides information on how to prepare for such power outages.

Getting the word out

Hawaiian Electric said before activating a PSPS, it will notify the public and coordinate with government officials, first responders and emergency response agencies. “Hawaiian Electric will provide public notifications through news releases, social media, online outage maps and updates to its website. If weather conditions change suddenly, shutoff may occur with little or no notice,” the company said in its news release.

Ideally, PSPS shutoffs would come with 24 to 48 hours of advance notice.

Wilbur said she hopes Hawaiian Electric is able to efficiently notify residents as soon as possible.

One major concern is assisting those on life support to get generators, but many are kupuna who cannot afford $2,500 for a generator, Wilbur said.

As far as fire prevention, she said the state Department of Transportation and city departments of Transportation Services and Facilities Management have responded to her calls to cut back the overgrowth of grasses that could fuel wildfires.

She said Hawaiian Electric is partnering with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to assist those with large lots, including “a kupuna with acres of land.”

Volunteers have also joined Wilbur in helping families cut their lawns and clear overgrown properties.

For more information and maps, call Hawaiian Electric’s PSPS hotline at 844-483-8666 toll-free or go to hawaiianelectric.com/PSPS.
Source: The Garden Island

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