BPA Keeps Juice Flowing;by Vince Devlin
Ten minutes after it kicked up, at about 5:30 p.m. MDT Wednesday, Bonneville Power Administration officials in Portland, Ore., got the word.
The Tarkio wildfire in western Montana was on the move and moving fast, and could reach BPA's Garrison-Taft lines - a major supplier of electricity to the Pacific Northwest - within an hour.
At 7:08, the first of the two 500-kilovolt lines tripped out.
At 7:12, the second did.
And across the Pacific Northwest, refrigerators kept running and air conditioners kept humming and lights burned through the night, just like BPA officials said they would.
By 9:30 p.m. Thursday, the lines had been re-energized, according to Sharon Sweeney of the Lolo National Forest.
But there was no interruption to service during the 26 1/2 hours the line was down.
"When a line automatically shuts down, we have the ability to almost instantaneously move that power somewhere else," said BPA press officer Mike Hansen. "It's really quite amazing. It is literally instantaneously. Plus, we were waiting for this and knew it could happen."
Much of the power was rerouted over smaller (230- and 115-kilovolt) lines out of the Garrison substation.
It helped that the Garrison-Taft lines, capable of carrying 2,200 megawatts of electricity, were handling only about 500 megawatts at the time.
To understand how much electricity is in 2,200 megawatts, you could power the entire city of Seattle with it and would still have 1,000 megawatts left over.
BPA officials took to the air Thursday morning to assess any damage, but the fire was still moving back and forth across BPA's right of way and prevented them from viewing all of the affected lines.
Where they could see the lines, "There doesn't appear to be any damage," Hansen said.
BPA scheduled another flyover later Thursday.
Both smoke, which is a conductor, and heat, can cause electricity to arc off the line and shut it down. "Same way a switch will throw at your home if there's too much draw on the lines," Hansen said.
The smooth rerouting of power came despite dire predictions by the incident commander at the fires.
Bob Sandman, whose crews had been battling to keep the fire from the lines, had told Alberton residents Tuesday that if the fire got to the lines, it could produce blackouts as far away as California.
"A huge portion of the population in the western part of the United States would be affected," Sandman had said when the fire was still three miles away from the Garrison-Taft lines.
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