July 29, 2021

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Raging Oregon Wildfire Threatens California’s Already Beleaguered Power Grid

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Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

A raging wildfire in Oregon has doubled in size to 120 squares miles (roughly 311 square kilometers) within 24 hours and now threatens vital transmission lines that carry power to California’s already beleaguered energy grid, the Associated Press reports. It’s one of dozens of blazes scorching the West Coast amid a triple-digit heat wave.

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This latest threat to California’s grid—the Bootleg Fire—sparked in southern Oregon earlier this week before strong winds pushed the flames toward Path 66, a corridor of three parallel 500 kilovolt power lines that connect the two states’ energy grids, CBS SF Bay Area reports. Containment remains at 0%, according to a Saturday update from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The Bootleg Fire exploded from 61 square miles (about 158 square kilometers) on Friday to 120 squares miles (about 311 square kilometers) on Saturday, NBC-affiliate KGW8 reports. The blaze has prompted mandatory evacuations and is threatening about 3,000 homes and structures, Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office told the outlet.

As the fire quickly grew out of control Friday evening, California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent out an emergency proclamation to “alleviate the heat-induced demands” already stressing the grid to its limits. The order waived permits for the use of backup power generation and called on residents and businesses to conserve energy during high-demand hours on Friday.

The energy crisis continued to get worse over the weekend. The California Independent System Operator, which runs California’s bulk electricity grid, issued a grid warning for Saturday evening as it predicted a potential energy shortfall. The state has lost 5,500 megawatts of power as a result of the Bootleg Fire’s impact, California ISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said in a press conference on Saturday.

“That is a significant fraction of the state’s power supply,” Maizer said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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That may even be an understatement. For context, in 2020 the agency declared a Stage 3 emergency for the first time in about 20 years after the unexpected loss of a 470 megawatt power plant along with the loss of nearly 1,000 megawatts from wind power.

Firefighters in Oregon are also working to contain the Jack Fire raging in Douglas County, which has grown to more than 14 square miles (37.7 square kilometers) and is 10% contained as of Saturday, according to an OSFM update. In Northern California, two lightning-caused fires continued to rage over 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) north of Lake Tahoe over the weekend. One of the fires has grown so fast so quickly that it’s generating its own lightning—because that’s apparently a thing that can happen! 

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Soaring temperatures and widespread drought conditions have further exacerbated firefighting efforts. On Friday, Death Valley National Park in California hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), one of the hottest temperatures ever reliably recorded on Earth.

More than 1,200 firefighters in California are being aided by aircraft to douse the flames. The air is so dry that some of the water dropped by these planes has evaporated before reaching the ground, state fire information officer Lisa Cox told AP.

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“We’re expecting more of the same the day after and the day after and the day after,” Cox said.

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