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Growing Oregon Wildfire Threatens California Transmission Lines, State Issues Grid Warning

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Electrical power line towers are seen in Los Angeles on Aug. 19, 2020 during a triple-digit heat wave gripping the area. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Updated July 11, 1:30 p.m.

Southern Oregon's Bootleg Fire has grown to more than 143,000 acres as of Sunday morning, doubling in size from Saturday, when California energy officials warned it was encroaching on power transmission lines to the state.

Still, officials breathed a sigh of relief Sunday as flex alert warnings asking the public to conserve energy were successful. Those energy demands grew in the face of the wildfire, which blocked access to 5,500 megawatts of power, and as rising heat threatened to tax the state's energy reserves.

The California Independent System Operator, which oversees the transmission of bulk electricity in the state, said there would be no flex alert on Sunday. Grid conditions were expected to be "stable" Sunday, California ISO said in a tweet.

"CA, you did it! Your efforts helped keep the grid stable," the agency wrote on Twitter.

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Threats to the grid aren't over yet, however. In the wake of growing wildfires and an ongoing heat wave, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Saturday to allow the use of auxiliary ship engines to relieve pressure on California's electric grid. This is in addition to his move Friday to allow the use of other backup energy reserves.

And while Sunday was expected to be relatively calm in terms of energy demands, California ISO warned demand is expected to increase again after the weekend — and asked the public to "remain vigilant" in case the state needs to conserve energy Monday.

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Fearing the threat of wildfires to transmission lines amid a sweltering heat wave, California electricity grid operators issued a call to the public to conserve energy from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday to prevent rolling blackouts statewide.

With temperatures rising across the state's inland regions, California's electric grid netted a new threat Friday night as southern Oregon's Bootleg Fire doubled in size to nearly 76,000 acres, encroaching dangerously close to transmission lines used to import electricity from other states to California.

The California Independent System Operator also forecast a potential shortfall of capacity due to the Bootleg Fire and issued a grid warning from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday night. That warning indicates California ISO, which operates California's bulk electricity grid, anticipates using its electricity reserves, and allows them to request emergency assistance and emergency demand programs if needed.

California has lost access to 5,500 megawatts of power due to the fire's impacts on a grid interconnection between California and Oregon, California ISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said in a press conference Saturday afternoon. To put that into context, during one of two rolling blackouts called last year, the loss of just 248 megawatts at a plant in the Central Valley was the final tipping point into an emergency.

"That's a significant portion of the state's power supply," Mainzer said. "I really want to emphasize, we are asking a lot of consumers, but we've been using every tool at our disposal to keep the lights on."

This year's statewide energy issues have been exacerbated by wildfires unlike last year, when California ISO admitted that it was exporting energy to other states as demand peaked in California. That prompted ISO to call the first rolling blackouts in 19 years on two evenings in August.

In an effort to free up additional energy resources quickly, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency proclamation Friday to suspend some permitting requirements that would allow backup power generation to be used to alleviate demands on the energy grid.

As Californians deal with triple-digit heat Saturday, the National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning for much of the interior region of Northern California that will last through tomorrow night.

NWS meteorologist Brayden Murdock said it’s important for people to be thinking ahead to lower electricity use as much as possible.

“Not only are we dealing with hazardous heat during the day, but pretty warm nights are probably leading to people putting extra stress on their systems to get rid of that heat,” Murdock said.

California ISO said data showed demand for electricity did drop Friday after they issued a flex alert that day, showing Californians were conserving in the face of a growing heat wave. But the Bootleg Fire's growth posed an "imminent threat" to transmission lines between California and Oregon.

Those transmission lines also import power into another electric grid that helps power Nevada.

The Bootleg Fire may not be contained for another two weeks, according to California ISO. California dispatched two strike teams with wildland engines to help Oregon officials battle the flames.

But two weeks isn't the only span of time to worry about. Mainzer, the California ISO CEO, told the press Saturday that California needs to think ahead about how to shore up its energy in the new reality of ever-growing wildfires and heat.

"I think all of us recognize," he said, "that California has a significant amount of additional capacity it needs to put into the system here in the years ahead to adapt to these changing patterns of load, and temperatures, and heat, and even the potential for extended drought."

"We need to get away from the edge (capacity-wise) where we are now, but it will take some time," he added.

Wildfire season has seen challenges arise across the state, as the Beckwourth Complex of fires in California's northeast saw nearly 200 square miles of the Plumas National Forest closed, and forced evacuations across state lines into Nevada on Friday.

The Beckwourth Complex, which began as two lightning-caused fires in Plumas National Forest, showed “extreme behavior,” fire information officer Lisa Cox said Friday evening.

Hot rising air formed a gigantic, smoky pyrocumulus cloud that reached thousands of feet high and created its own lightning, Cox said. And spot fires caused by embers leapt up to a mile ahead of the northeastern flank — too far for firefighters to safely battle.

Winds up to about 20 mph on ridge tops were funneling flames up draws and canyons full of dry fuel, where “it can actually pick up speed,” Cox said.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters were aided by aircraft but the blaze was expected to continue leaping through trees and chaparral that already are bone-dry because of low humidity and the heat wave forecaste to continue through the weekend.

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KQED's Emily Hung and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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