Despite growing wildfires, N.L. Hydro says it’s business as usual at Churchill Falls power plant

The vast multicoloured mahcine room is 300 metres long and full of machinery.
Only critical personnel remain at the Churchill Falls hydroelectric plant, seen here in 2023, after the town was evacuated due to nearby wildfires. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro CEO Jennifer Williams says the energy company is keeping an eye on the wildfires that caused Churchill Falls to be evacuated and a skeleton crew is hard at work to keep the town’s power plant going.

The town of about 750 people is built around the N.L. Hydro generating station, which provides electricity to the province and to Quebec.

Residents and most workers left town when an evacuation was called at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, but a crew of around 20 employees, support workers and Hydro’s own fire crew remain in the community.

“Critical personnel are on site, and we are all incredibly grateful for them to stay,” said Williams. “They are really good at their job, and they’re going to make sure that these assets remain in as good condition as is possible.”

A press release Wednesday said the workers will operate the plant until it’s unsafe to do so.

“If things change, we will take direction and we will make sure that, as the premier said, their safety is paramount,” Williams said.

WATCH | Williams says things are currently operating at status quo at the Churchill Falls plant:

Churchill Falls power plant ‘operating normally’ despite wildfire

At a wildfire briefing on Thursday, the president and CEO of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said the Churchill Falls power generating station’s output remains unchanged thanks to essential personnel who have stayed on site. Hundreds of people fled the town on Wednesday night following an evacuation order prompted by an out-of-control wildfire.

Williams said the fire hasn’t forced the plant to reduce its output and Hydro has been in constant communication with clients, stakeholders and government to make sure they have the lastest information.

Provincial forest fire duty officer Bryan Oke told CBC News on Thursday the fire — according to the latest available report — was just three or four kilometres south of Churchill Falls.

“If we have to get to the point where we think employee safety and the other folks, the other provincial resources that are there along with the employees, is at risk, a decision would be made to evacuate those folks. And they would have some time to go into remote operation mode,” Williams told reporters.

“We would make changes within the plant, reduce some load, talk to our customers about what that looks like and then proceed to evacuate. Hopefully we don’t get there, but we certainly have an eye to that.”

Steps are being taken to have everything ready if an evacuation needs to happen, Williams said. 

That decision will be made by Hydro and the provincial government, Premier Andrew Furey told reporters Thursday.

“The single biggest item in that decision matrix right now would be if it crosses the river,” he said, adding wind patterns are currently favourable to prevent that from happening.

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