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The other fire line

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Officials are still unsure of what caused last week’s North American blackout, but the theory that a single lightning bolt put 40 million fridges on the fritz hasn’t been ruled out. This theory may not offer much encouragement to Montana residents surrounded by thousands of burning acres, but NorthWestern Energy isn’t worried. Well, at least not much.

NorthWestern has plans in place for just about every type of disaster, says spokeswoman Susan Fisher, and a big part of the job here in Montana is thinking about what type of havoc wildfires might wreak on the system. It was the fires of 2000 that prepared the company for outages like the one in Missoula’s O’Brien Creek area over the weekend of August 16 and 17.

“We worked with the incident commanders to get back there and restore power so no one lost food in their refrigerators and their air conditioners were working,” says Fisher.

Carol Harmon’s home was just out of range of the power outage, but she’ll continue to worry about it as long as the fires burn.

“There are a lot of lines over in the Black Mountain area, so it was a concern, and I guess it still can happen, so we still think about it,” says Harmon. “When the power goes we all lose our water out here, because we’re all on wells that run on pumps. That’s scary.”

But Fisher says that people shouldn’t worry too much about losing water or the egg salad in the fridge.

“Our system is built with redundancy,” she says. “What redundancy means is that if one line goes down for any reason, whether a car hits it or lightning or a wildfire, we actually reroute the electricity to the area. You may see a blip in your lights or a little surge or maybe the power goes down for 10 minutes or an hour.”

Fisher presents an optimist’s view of Montana’s power stability, but she’s also a realist. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that something could knock out the lights for a day or more.

“The minute I say it won’t happen, we could have a semi accidentally run into a substation, or we’ll have a major earthquake,” says Fisher. “So I won’t say it won’t happen.”

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