Residents living in high bushfire risk areas to face longer power outages on hot summer days

Residents living in high bushfire risk areas around Perth should expect longer power outages over summer.
Residents living in high bushfire risk areas around Perth should expect longer power outages over summer.

RESIDENTS living in high bushfire risk areas should expect longer power outages over summer with Western Power enacting safety protocols that delay workers from re-energising powerlines until the fire danger index rating falls on hot days.

The message follows extended power outages that left residents in Mount Helena, Gidgegannup, Sawyers Valley, Bailup and Wooroloo sweltering in extreme heat for nearly 20 hours on January 20 and 16 hours on January 28.

A Western Power spokesman said during the summer months the utility had a role to play to manage and reduce the risk of bushfire hazards.

“This means our approach to restoration of power will take longer because we alter our standard operating procedures to meet the heightened conditions during any unplanned outage,” he said.

“The length of time to restore power in the Swan Hills under bushfire risk conditions has understandably caused enormous frustration for homes and businesses where our altered operational procedures have significantly impacted restoration times,” he said.

“On Sunday, January 20 at around 1.30am, Western Power emergency response crews responded to an outage that was impacting approximately 1300 homes and businesses.

“After extensive line inspections, accompanied by DFES personnel who assisted us to gain exemptions from vehicle movement bans, our crews were able to identify fallen branches hitting powerlines as the cause of the outage.

“Once repairs were completed and the fire danger index fell to a safe level our network operations were able to restore power safely to customers at approximately 8.45pm.”

The spokesman said it was unfortunate an extended outage on January 28 that lasted from 4.30am until 8.30pm affected an identical area.

“Western Power crews conducted extensive inspections of the affected network to identify the source of the outage,” he said.

“A number of possible causes were identified but none of these proved to be the origin of the outage.

“Under a total fire ban, Western Power can seek an exemption to restore power following an unplanned outage if a risk assessment is conducted and the outcome satisfies network operations that re-energising will not contribute to a bushfire.

“Following the risk assessment which included the length of the network, which was over 100km and ran through high and extreme danger areas that included bushland and rural properties, the decision was made to wait until the fire danger index fell to a safe level before restoration of power was attempted.”

Swan Hills MLA and Gidgegannup resident Jess Shaw said she understood and shared the community’s frustration over the power outages.

“I have contacted Western Power to convey people’s frustrations and to obtain more information about the ongoing problems on certain feeders,” she said.

“I know constituents feel annoyed because I feel annoyed too.

“The conditions were atrocious on those two days and the timing couldn’t have been worse.”

Ms Shaw said the Hills network had unique problems compared to the metropolitan area. “The hills area has significantly higher woodland coverage than the metropolitan network and contains larger populations of wildlife so our overhead network is more likely to be impacted by tree branches hitting the lines or birds touching the live wires and falling to the ground,” she said.

“However the community needs to remember that vehicle movement bans are an important safeguard against fire and are not imposed lightly.

“They are instituted to protect lives and homes – both our own lives and those of the line crews and firefighters.

“As someone who worked in energy for well over a decade before politics, I know that the line crews make every effort to maintain supply and protect our homes and businesses from fire.”

Gidgegannup Progress Association chair Sally Block said it was important Western Power communicated power outages to affected residents.

“Having no power from 1.30am until 9pm is a very long time, particularly on a day with temperatures well over 40 degrees,” she said.

“People were understandably very frustrated and annoyed.

“There needs to be timely information available for people so they know how works to resolve the power outage are progressing and when it is likely to be back on.

“If people know there will be no power for more than 12 hours they can head to a shopping centre or take the kids to the cinema to escape the heat.”

However Ms Block said Hills residents should be prepared and expect longer power outages in summer.

“Western Power are trying very hard to protect us so people should be prepared – they may not have power for many hours,” she said.

“It is vital they have a small generator so they can operate their water pump and consider implementing smaller measures such as not stacking their freezer over summer.

“I feel dreadful for those affected but unfortunately it is something we have to live with.”

Ms Shaw has met with Energy Minister Bill Johnston and will chair a parliamentary enquiry into the ways Western Power can improve power supply and reliability in rural areas.