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From wildfires to storms, our crews are ready

BC Hydro crews attend to a power outage on Galiano Island
BC Hydro crews attend to a power outage on Galiano Island caused by a fallen tree in 2020.

After a summer of fires, crews turn attention to wind and rain

Wildfires. Floods. Rain and wind. Dealing with emergencies in B.C. is a year-round job that doesn't rest just because the emergency isn't in your community.

So while the Gulf Islands were spared the destruction of a record-breaking B.C. wildfire summer, BC Hydro operations manager Stefan Peters was dispatched to Salmon Arm, where our crews from near and far joined other B.C. emergency response teams at ground zero of B.C.'s wildfires.

"While storms are a little like whack-a-mole, fires are more like large construction projects," says Peters. "With wildfires, you're mobilizing a huge amount of resources and focusing on restoration of service in an orderly fashion. And those fires can quickly swing back around, so there are specific dangers associated with them."

A lot has changed since Peters first joined BC Hydro as an apprentice power line technician in 2004. That year, wildfires torched less than 221,000 hectares across B.C. But so far in 2023, fires have burned more than 3 million hectares, or more than 13 times the 2004 number.

And now, just as wildfire season turns from sizzle to simmer, storm season begins. And it could be a challenging one. The months of heat and drought that led to a wildfires record have weakened B.C.'s trees and made them more susceptible to breaking or falling in the wind and rain.

"Trees weakened by drought stress and associated disease can be more susceptible to wind," says BC Hydro meteorologist Wolf Read. "As the fall storms ramp up, a substantial amount of this material is likely to fall, contributing to power outages."

Safe distance from power lines: Down. Danger. Dial.

BC Hydro prioritizes safety in restoration efforts

In the past, it wasn't unusual for power line technicians at BC Hydro and other utilities to work long hours for consecutive days when performing restoration efforts. While today's crews are still whisked away from family dinners for long shifts on multiple days, there's a greater emphasis today on ensuring crews get enough rest to avoid fatigue.

Crews also have paramedic and other medical support at their disposal, and flaggers accompany each crew to ensure spaces on roadways are protected from traffic.

"Crews are encouraged to intervene in unsafe circumstances," says Peters. "And they can call a ‘safety stop' at any time if they see something unsafe."

Another evolution around restoration efforts is communication to the public. We work with local and provincial media, share information on our social media channels, and provide up-to-date outage information on our website, including causes of an outage and estimated restoration times.

Dealing with risks to public safety at the top of our list

When a storm hits, there's a whole lot going on to ensure our crews have all the information they need to deal with safety emergencies and to restore power where it matters most. Dispatchers gather information, crews assess damage as they arrive on the scene, then repairs are made, and power is restored.

In a major storm, we need to prioritize to restore power according to a community's greatest needs. Here's our priorities list:

  1. Anything that poses a risk to public safety
  2. Critical and municipal services
  3. Largest outages to bring the most customers back
  4. Smaller outages and individual homes

While most power outages are resolved within 24 hours, our crews can't always restore power right away. Customers need to be prepared for outages that last longer. That's why you should have a well-stocked 72-hour emergency kit and a household safety plan that includes what to do when outages occur during the day.

"When a big storm hit in 2018, kids were at school and a lot of people were at work," recalls Peters. "Eighty per cent of the roads in the Gulf Islands were blocked by trees and wires, and it became a big deal to make sure that people were safe and children could get home."

Prepared BC has a fantastic fill-in-the-blanks home emergency plan where you can input everything from key family member, contacts, health and insurance information. And you can learn more about how to prepare for outages, including exactly what to do when the power goes out. Stay safe by always staying at least 10 metres away from damaged or broken power lines, and if you see a downed line, call 911.

And if you're without power and an outage in your area isn't listed, you can help us. Call 1 800 BCHYDRO (1 800 224 9376) or *HYDRO (*49376) on your mobile phone to report it, or log in to report it online.

More tips on how to best prepare for a power outage

So you have your emergency kit and household emergency plan in place. Everyone in your home knows where the kit is, and has a copy of the emergency plan they can grab at home, work, or school.

What else can you do to prepare? Stay up to date on the weather, and if there's a storm approaching, consider filling your bathtub with water.

Yes, while in most homes water still runs during a power outage, there are exceptions.

"It's one thing to be without power, and another to be without water," says Peters. "So be prepared to not have running water for the duration of the outage, whether you're on a community system or whether you're on a well. Personally, we fill the bathtub in our home. And from the water in the tub, you can flush your toilets and wash dishes."

Peters is big on the idea of taking personal responsibility around emergency preparedness. Don't forget that many of us in B.C. are in an earthquake zone, that storms tend to be more intense than in the past, and that floods and other emergencies can require evacuation.

"These are natural events that can't be controlled," he says. "So one way or another, we need to expect them. And while our response times for power outages are getting faster and faster because of the effort and planning we put into it, an earthquake can cause a lot more damage than a windstorm. We need to prepare for that."