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Manitoba Hydro and the fires near Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi

Monday June 25, in the Crown Corporations Committee of the Manitoba Legislature, I asked Kelvin Shepherd, the President and CEO of Manitoba Hydro a series of questions about the role of Manitoba Hydro in relation to fire emergencies.  My questions and Mr. Shepherd's responses are below. 
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Let me start with a question from my colleague, the MLA from Kewatinook. She asks: Why did Manitoba Hydro fly in and out of Little Grand Rapids at a cost of $3,600  per day while restoring power when they could have stayed at the Little Grand Rapids Lodge at a cost of $2,600, saving Hydro $1,000 a day for the three weeks?
      I know that Manitoba Hydro's looking carefully at all expenses, and she's just pointing out an area where there could have been some savings perhaps, and let me ask, probably most appropriately, to Mr. Shepherd.
Mr. Shepherd: Thank you for the question, Dr. Gerrard, and first just let me say that I think our staff that responded to this emergency in Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids have done an excellent job, beginning with our emergency management operations staff and then, ultimately, our logistics and support staff, and then, finally, our construction people on the ground that undertook to restore service in a, I think, a very expedient manner, but also with due regard to safety and to ensuring that customer safety was also foremost, because with this type of damage, you can have live wires. And so we worked very carefully to ensure that.
      As you know, the staff–most of the staff did go in and out on a daily basis. And that's largely because we believe that was the most effective way to mobilize staff. Staff changed, so you didn't necessarily have the same people every day. It allowed us to augment staff and bring them in. And, quite frankly, services on the ground were pretty limited in Little Grand Rapids. There was no power; there was no water, really, during the emergency, and so it was much more effective for us to do that.
      I respect that your colleague believes there was a cost saving there, but I think, operationally, we chose to use what we believe was the most effective means to restore service in a quick and safe manner.
Mr. Gerrard: One of the things in looking at aspects of fire prevention is that currently, most of the approach to addressing fires focuses on preventing damages to homes and in communities, but it would seem to me that given the importance of Hydro lines and keeping them intact in terms of when you get people back in, that a pretty strong case could be made to have fire plans which  also focus on the utility lines like Hydro lines so that a community can get back and up sooner.
Mr. Shepherd: Thank you, Dr. Gerrard, for that question.
      And I–it's something that Manitoba Hydro focuses on. We have a plan. It–first, it starts with a vegetation management plan. So we have a regular plan to control vegetation and manage the amount of growth underneath or near Hydro lines. Of course, if you have a very large fire, you know, it's–as you know, a fire can jump large distances, and so it is difficult to totally mitigate. But we do have a regular program and we enter into regular activities to do that.
      Secondly, we do have an emergency management plan, and we ensure that if there is a situation where, you know, infrastructure is damaged, that we are well equipped and positioned to respond. And so that may include everything from simply having a correct stockpile of components to having staff that are trained to work in situations like that.
      Furthermore, our emergency management organization co-ordinates closely with the Province, and to the extent that there is a threat to major infrastructure, the Province works with us to try to prioritize fire resources, where appropriate, to protect that infrastructure.
      So I can assure you that we work closely with our provincial counterparts, that we have a professional team on board, that we have activities both preventative and restorative in place. And I think this particular fire, which obviously resulted in, you know, a significant burned area and evacuation of a community–the infrastructure damage was responded to and restored in a very timely manner. And I don't believe that there's something that really could have been done in this case to somehow prevent the damage. And I believe that we had the plan and the people in place to respond and restore it.
      Recognizing the remoteness of the area, the fact that equipment had to be airlifted to Bissett, I believe, and then helicoptered in–so there's a large logistics component when you have this type of a problem in a remote area, but I think we have a good plan in place and we're always concerned when there is an outage and look to restore it as quickly as we can, but this was a difficult situation and, still, power was restored in a pretty timely manner.
Mr. Gerrard: Yes, so follow up: I gather there's an emergency plan in place that would be there for each community which presumably would be shared with the Province and the community and perhaps with the federal government.
Mr. Shepherd: No, I would say that we–on those types of issues, we don't have individual community plans, but what we do have is a system plan. So we ensure that we have reasonable stockpiles of material properly positioned for emergency restoration. You know, those range all the way from, in this case it might be distribution poles and transformers, all the way to, for example in the case of our bipole line, we have spare towers that are positioned throughout the province.
      So we have a system response plan and we have essentially a plan that would call for the activation of an emergency operation centre with people that are familiar with the area and know how to access resources in the corporation and co‑ordinate with the Province to restore service.
      I think you could understand that for a utility our size with the number of locations, it would be practically impossible to develop a plan for every community. So you have to have a more generic response plan that is flexible enough but able to be activated dependent on the situation that you face.

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