Safeguarding Skagit: Inside the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade

City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project provides clean and efficient energy to Seattle’s customers, and its idyllic location provides spectacular, Instagram-worthy views of the North Cascades and Diablo Lake. Being nestled in such a remote location does have its advantages, but it can also provide its share of challenges when minutes count. During an emergency—whether someone has a bump or bruise during a dam tour or is involved in a serious traffic accident on the North Cascades Highway—a team of City Light employees take action, changing from their daily roles at the utility to act as members of the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade.

For almost 60 years, this mostly volunteer group of first responders has gone above and beyond their assigned work duties at City Light to safeguard the residents and property of City Light, the Skagit Project and the North Cascades National Park. Fire Brigade Chief Cody Watson explains “the brigade fights fires and provides an emergency response like a typical fire department would; there are situations that require backup.” That’s why in 2008, a specialized group called the Skagit Technical Response Team (STRT) was created to supplement the brigade and provide aid during unusual rescue situations. Like the brigade, STRT is a team of City Light employees who are trained beyond their day-to-day skills.

In 2016, the brigade was crucial to the containment of the Goodell Creek Fire, which severely threatened the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and the surrounding communities. For Watson, an emergency of any size is important because of the brigade’s local impact.

“We have helped friends, family, co-workers and strangers who are often having the worst day of their lives,” says Watson. “The brigade provides services that no one else in this geographical area can. When the fire alarm goes off, they have to switch gears and put on a different hat. We have a pretty extraordinary team up here.”

Last November, the fire brigade added a new vehicle to their fleet, a state-of-the-art ambulance. The new vehicle replaced a unit that had been in service for nearly 25 years. Watson and the brigade worked closely with the City Light Fleet and Mobile Equipment team to build a unit that meets their unique needs. Some of the unique features include snow chains that engage with a flip of a switch, a hydraulic lift and cabin airbags to protect first responders when treating a patient.

Thank you, Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade, for keeping the City Light employees and its visitors safe!

 

Experience the majestic beauty of the North Cascades next summer on a Skagit Tour. Skagit Tours provide a fun and educational experience for people of all ages. Visit https://www.seattle.gov/light/damtours/skagit.asp for more information!

Seattle City (spot)Light: Vonie Polomis

Vonie Polomis has worked for the City of Seattle for more than 33 years. Born in Washington, she’s lived in different parts of the state like Chelan, Yakima and Spokane. Now, Vonie enjoys the scenic beauty of the North Cascades as an Administrative Specialist III at City Light’s Skagit project where she’s lived the past 10 ½ years.

Family is also the upmost importance to Vonie who has two children and three grandchildren. She’s also an animal lover which is seen through the affection and care toward her 13-year old pet dove, Girlbird. In this week’s (spot)light, we learn about Vonie’s love of people, her community and Mother Nature.

Vonie is all smiles with her pet dove, Girlbird

“It’s been a blessing in my life to be up here. People always ask me how I live here. My reply is ‘How can I NOT?’ When I walk out that door, I’m in God’s country. The mountains are just beautiful; I’m so at peace in my home. I have two huge 12-foot windows where I just sit and look at nature. I like to feed the birds. I joke that the blue jays think of me as the bird lady.”

“I love people and the work I do for City Light. Customer service is something I greatly value. I also enjoy working with all the different teams and meeting the different folks throughout the utility. I’ve been with the City for the chunk of my career so I have a whole network back in Seattle! I work hard to make sure that the Skagit project sees different programs and events, such as Family Day and the RSJI initiative which I’ve been involved with the past six years.”

“I like being involved with the community. The people of Concrete are waiting for me to move there! So, now I’m thinking of what I can do for them once I’m there. One of the things that comes to mind is a Boys and Girls Club. They don’t have one and I’d like to focus on that when I move to town. They also want me on the Historical Museum Committee.”

“Another hobby of mine is softball. I played into my 40s. There’s a softball tournament called ‘Squash Ball’ that’s been held for the past 30 years or so. It’s with the firefighters in the community and other local folks. Anyway, I realized that Newhalem didn’t have a team last year. So, I rallied and made it happen. I even played! I actually hit the ball and got a double. It was amazing. So much fun.”

“I’ve come across many people in my life, but one piece of advice from a friend really stood out. She told me ‘If you don’t define yourself, I guarantee you that somebody else will, and you won’t like it.’ And that’s what I live by. I’m even writing a book about it called ‘I Wish I had the Nerve.’ Maybe one of these days when I retire, I’ll finally finish it!”

Seattle City (spot)Light: Katie Seling

Katie Seling has served on City Light’s Customer Energy Solutions (CES) team for the past six years. “In my current role, I evaluate the effectiveness of conservation programs,” Katie explained. “Are our customers saving what we think they’re saving? Are people participating in areas we think they are? How well is a program designed—is this something we can make more streamlined for our customers? Have we reached all of our customers and made programs available equitably?”

A native Washingtonian, Katie grew up in Lake Stevens and lives in Shoreline with her husband, Peter. They have two young sons with whom they enjoy the area’s parks and activities. “Green Lake is one of our favorite places to hang out during the summer,” she said. In this week’s (spot)Light, Katie talks about her family, her love of music and how her philosophy degree from the University of Washington laid a strong foundation for her job.

Katie and her sons at a Pride parade

“I really like living here. I love that we’re so close to the water and that we have such easy access to the mountains. I also like the climate—maybe not ten months out of the year when it’s raining, but it does make everything green. My husband and I have traveled around and can imagine living in other places, but not for long. We talk about taking our family to live abroad for a year or two, but we’d always return home to the Northwest.”

“Right now, baseball is kind of taking up the bulk of our family time. My older son is a baseball fanatic. My husband is also a huge Mariners fan. We’re a Mariners family. Even when they’re losing, we cheer them on. So, we’re either watching our son play baseball at the park or have it on TV, the radio or getting updates on Peter’s phone.”

“Music is also another family activity. When he’s not teaching middle school kids, my husband is a musician—he plays guitar, primarily—so the kids are constantly playing the various instruments we have at home. Seattle has a great music scene. Some of our favorite places to catch a show are Neumos and the Neptune. Lo-fi and the Columbia City Theater are amazing little venues. I like it when my husband plays there and at the Vera Project, where our kids sometimes join him on stage. We’re very proud to be KEXP supporters, too.”

“I like to write and am a creative person, but philosophy grounded me in analysis and critical thinking. So, I’ve applied those traits to my work with our conservation programs. I also love data and determining who is taking advantage of our programs and who isn’t. Another huge focus of mine is ensuring that the utility is creating good equity-focused programs. It’s important that RSJI (the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative) is broadly integrated into various aspects of our organization like internal operations, our programs and our evaluation process.”

“I like working at City Light because we’re serving the community. I don’t like doing work that doesn’t connect to my values. Community service, education and social justice are my three top values, and if I’m not part of those things, I just can’t whole-heartedly invest in my work.”

Seattle City (spot)Light: Seema Ghosh

Seema Ghosh first came to City Light as an intern when she was studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington. After college, she remained in the utility’s generation group for another two years, but left for graduate school at Georgia Tech and later pursued a career in renewable energy. After nine years at a consulting firm, Seema returned to the utility as a Power Systems Engineer, a position she’s held the past nine months.

“My home is in Customer Energy Solutions (CES). I’m in our technology services group there,” Seema explained. “In that role, I look at new and emerging technologies and figure out how we can support the customer with things like connecting a battery or figuring out different ways to conserve energy. Just staying on top of the market.”

Born in Wisconsin, Seema’s family moved to Silverdale, Washington when she was ten. She now lives in Columbia City with her husband Kris, 15-month old daughter Ruby and a pitbull mix named Betsy. In this week’s (spot)Light, Seema shares what sparked her engineering career and the drive behind her work.

“My parents always encouraged me to become an engineer. At first I wasn’t sure; all I knew was that I wanted to do something meaningful–something that would make an impact on my community, as well as the world. I ended up liking math and science and decided to give engineering a try. In my classes, we studied renewable energy sources and that’s when I realized that my engineering work could make a positive impact.”

“I interned at City Light because I wanted to be in power and energy. Being in the generation group was awesome. We visited dams and got to see firsthand how energy is created. I left to do consulting work in renewables, but eventually came back. I connected with folks in our conservation group and when I learned about what they were working on, I knew I wanted to be part of it. The same with our technology unit, they are working on grid modernization and other interesting, forward-thinking initiatives. As a consult, I read and had discussion with clients about what’s happening in the industry but here I get to be part of the team that’s actually implementing new solutions and technologies.”

“Currently, I’m working on the public electrical vehicle (EV) charging program. That’s been taking up most of my time and I’ve enjoyed it. The majority of my background and experience consists of technical analysis and engineering, not program implementation. Supporting the EV project is exhilarating because, I’m actually building something. That means talking to different groups like construction, rates and transportation. The whole process has been interesting, especially figuring out who I need to talk to and why. It’s a big picture problem that requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. On top of that, everyone I’ve spoken to has been super helpful and excited about the project.”

“Through the EV pilot, it’s been amazing to see how a utility runs. I mean, we do everything. Transmission, generation, distribution, billing… the whole gamut. It’s cool to work at a place where the projects that you’re working on have a local impact.”

Seattle City (spot)Light: Al Ferrara

Al Ferrara has served City Light the past three years as the Maintenance Manager at the utility’s Skagit Project. Hailing from Rochester in upstate New York, Al’s been an electrician most of his career. Ask him what he misses most about his hometown and he’ll quickly mention the food and the diversity. “New York is huge melting pot,” he said.

Al is also a proud father of four daughters. Since moving to Washington, he and his wife have become empty-nesters and spend their extra time wine tasting, exploring the PNW and cooking. “I love cooking pizzas,” he said. “My grill goes up to 1,000 degrees so I can cook a pie in minutes.” In this week’s (spot)Light, we chat with Al about life in Skagit and his role at the utility.

Al volunteers with the Whatcom Sheriff’s department (and, yes, he had to pass the Police Academy!)

“Part of my job is to work closely with the many country stakeholders like law enforcement, community leaders and the National Park Services. Because we’re so close to the Canadian border, we also deal with a ton of agencies, from homeland security and state patrol to Whatcom County and the Border Patrol. At Skagit, I oversee the warehouse, trades, grounds, General Store and Skagit Tours. A recent project we worked on is the bridge at Ladder Creek Falls. Our trade professionals hand-cut that bridge from cedar. The crews, the laborers, the carpenters, the right of ways…everyone worked hand in hand on that. It was a great project for us.”

“One of the perks to living here is dining at The Gorge Inn. I don’t eat there all the time, but when I do, it’s always a treat. They recently served an elk dish that was phenomenal. The Dam Good Chicken dinner is out of this world. The homemade desserts are incredible. I’ve never been too much of a pie person until I came here and tasted Washington state berries. Having our master chefs bake them in a pie has just been delightful.”

“The greatest ‘A-ha!’ for me in coming to work at City Light is the utility’s environmental impact. It’s something for which I’m very thankful—that the organization dedicates an entire division to the environment. At times, we’ll deal with things like invasive species. When that happens, our team will come in, mitigate and fix it. It’s just amazing and I get excited knowing I’m part of that team. We should be smiling about the work that we do.”

“There are great people at City Light. I try to help and mentor our employees. The piece of advice I always give is to enroll in a degree program so that when they’re done with their apprenticeship, they have that piece of paper as well. I went back to school at age 48. It was a big feat, but thank goodness I had my daughters to teach me study habits!”