With electrical faults linked to vast and deadly wildfires in California, the Northwest Territories’ power regulator says it’s taking steps to avoid the same problem.

Two California power companies were identified in November as potentially responsible for the Camp and Woolsey fires, which killed 89 people and destroyed more than 20,000 buildings.

Each company reported equipment issues in areas close to where the fires began, at around the time they started – though the causes have not been definitively determined.

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The NWT Public Utilities Board is now looking into how power equipment in the territory is maintained, the board’s chair said on Monday.

Like California, the territory is susceptible to devastating wildfires across vast swathes of land.

Though the NWT is far more sparsely populated than the US state, fighting fires has proved incredibly costly in bad years. In 2014, a year of ‘megafires’ across the territory, firefighting cost $56 million.

Former Yellowknife mayor Gord Van Tighem, now chair of the NWT Public Utilities Board, told city councillors the board is planning to upgrade its oversight of power facility maintenance.

“With the fires in California, one of the things in the background was electrical utility maintenance being something that may or may not have accentuated things,” Van Tighem said on Monday.

“As a result, we’re currently doing a review of the ongoing maintenance that’s being done – and the way that ongoing maintenance is reported in the process.

“There are minimum filing requirements [for NWT power companies] and we can introduce those types of questions into those requirements, making it mandatory that they answer these questions every three years.”

Wildfires in the Northwest Territories are ordinarily caused by either people or lightning strikes.

Famously, however, a 2014 wildfire outside Yellowknife was triggered by a raven electrocuting itself next to a transmission tower.

Reasonable rates?

Van Tighem also took questions from councillors about his board’s role in regulating the amounts charged by the power corporation and Northland Utilities.

Power costs, and their role in the high cost of northern living, are one of the most frequent complaints from NWT residents.

Discussing the board’s role in overseeing the charging of ‘reasonable’ power rates, Councillor Niels Konge asked Van Tighem: “I’m sure the vast majority of Yellowknifers don’t feel that our power rates are reasonable. What is the definition of reasonable?”

Gord Van Tighem presents to Yellowknife city councillors on January 7, 2019.

Van Tighem replied: “Everybody has a different definition of reasonable. Surprisingly, the NWT has lower rates if we look at other jurisdictions like the US.

“If you take a look at the rates in New York City, San Francisco, or Hawaii, we pay a small amount compared to them.

“Our biggest challenge is that there aren’t enough of us – we need more people to spread things more.”

Challenged by Konge that “there doesn’t seem to be any motivation [for power companies] to be efficient or save the ratepayers money,” Van Tighem said that was not the board’s role.

“That encouragement has to come from elsewhere,” he responded.

“That has to come through the general population, translated through the GNWT to the company, to make it happen.

“Ours is to ensure that once something is authorized, that’s what happens. And what is authorized is thoroughly researched, evaluated, and are the real numbers.”