SaskPower looking to 'modernize' northern power grid following mass outages due to Cloverdale wildfire

·4 min read
Many SaskPower customers in the north are only served by one transmission line. That line had 15 damaged power structures due to the wildfire this week, the Crown corporation says. (SaskPower - image credit)
Many SaskPower customers in the north are only served by one transmission line. That line had 15 damaged power structures due to the wildfire this week, the Crown corporation says. (SaskPower - image credit)

Approximately 9,000 SaskPower customers were without power between Monday and Thursday evening due to the Cloverdale wildfire, just north of Prince Albert.

Some customers didn't have power until late Friday morning.

During a wildfire update press conference call Friday, SaskPower spokesperson Joel Cherry was grilled about what should be done to safeguard northern Saskatchewan communities like La Ronge, Grandmother's Bay and Stanley Mission from enduring such a mass outage again.

Many SaskPower customers in the north are only served by one transmission line. That line had 15 damaged power structures due to the wildfire this week.

"The northern part of the province definitely does provide unique challenges for power restoration efforts — difficult terrain and the large geography for sure," Cherry said.

SaskPower equipment got stuck in the mud throughout Thursday, as workers tried to fix fire-damaged power structures.
SaskPower equipment got stuck in the mud throughout Thursday, as workers tried to fix fire-damaged power structures. (SaskPower)

Cherry said the power grid system in the north is stable now the Cloverdale wildfire is contained, and SaskPower has no concerns. But he said the wildfire has caused the organization to rethink the northern grid system.

"I can tell you this is going to be a major priority and point of focus for SaskPower this year," Cherry said.

"Part of our our broader grid modernization efforts is building a smart grid, which helps us to know when the power is out. Right now, we're reliant on our customers to call us and let us know when the power's out," he said.

Automatic switching at substations is also being considered, he said.

"Currently, in order to do some of that work, we have to physically send people out to these locations to do the work. And when you're dealing with large distances in the north, that can be a concern too."

Cherry said SaskPower will look at multiple options to help "modernize and reinforce" the power grid in the north, including possibly putting in a second transmission line. But he said the Crown power corporation does not have any detailed plans or reports at this time.

The Cloverdale wildfire power outage was the longest communities north of Prince Albert had had in a long time, Cherry said.

"I wouldn't call it a common occurrence that we have multi-day outages in the north. But just because of the challenges ... the geography, the terrain, in some cases, it can take longer to respond. And it does happen occasionally."

Many of the giant track machines SaskPower uses to get people and equipment into the wildfire-affected area got stuck in boggy conditions Thursday.
Many of the giant track machines SaskPower uses to get people and equipment into the wildfire-affected area got stuck in boggy conditions Thursday.(SaskPower)

Firefighters searching for hot spots

There are currently three active wildfires in the province, according to Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

The contained Cloverdale wildfire is the largest of the three. The others are the Division wildfire in the Fort à la Corne area and the McBride Fire, south of Hudson Bay. The Division fire is 1,489 hectares and the McBride is 13 hectares.

Ground and air support crews were working to contain both of those fires on Friday. Meanwhile, public safety personnel and fire crews are continuing with fire suppression efforts, according to Roberts.

The recent cold weather has helped crews make progress, he said.

"We're seeing extremely cold temperatures. We have snow on two of our fires as of this morning. And the cold temperatures and reduced winds are significantly helping the firefighters," Roberts said.

The aftermath of the Cloverdale wildfire, just north of Prince Albert, Sask.
The aftermath of the Cloverdale wildfire, just north of Prince Albert, Sask. (Albert Couillard/Radio-Canada)

Crews are using thermal scanning to search for and extinguish hot spots due to the Cloverdale wildfire.

On Thursday, Cloverdale wildfire evacuees were allowed to return home. Highway 55 has reopened with a speed restriction, as crews are still working in the area.

Investigation into cause underway

The Prince Albert Fire Department and government officials who specialize in fire investigation have identified the point of origin for the Cloverdale wildfire, according to Roberts.

"[They will] look at indicators on the ground to indicate whether it could have been from a well-travelled area. So, for instance, if it originated by a railway track ... or whether it's next to a well-travelled ATV trail — those kinds of indicators that would indicate possible sources," Roberts said.

Wildfire investigators are now interviewing witnesses and people who initially reported the wildfire in order to determine how it began.

Roberts said it will be a couple of weeks until the public sees a report on what caused the large wildfire.

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