By Ryan Lescure
July 27, 2009 (San Diego)--The San Diego City council voted 6-2 today to pass a resolution in support of SDG&E’s Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan. While supporters argued that the plan is needed to prevent power line-caused fires, opponents contended that blacking out power during fire-prone conditions could actually endanger lives.
Voting against the resolution were Councilmembers Donna Frye and Sherri Lightner, who both argued that SDG&E had not done a thorough enough analysis. Additionally, Lightner was concerned with the equity of the shut-off proposal because it targeted unincorporated areas of San Diego County.
Support for the resolution clearly came from Councilmember Marti Emerald, who led the discussion. She stated that it is the City Council’s job to explore options that will protect the citizens of the city, adding, “I believe we cannot afford to keep crossing our fingers.” Emerald noted that the shut-off was endorsed by Mike Christman, who works for a group that oversees CAL FIRE, as well as by Anthony Perez, Deputy Director of California State Parks, and the mayors of La Mesa, El Cajon, and Escondido.
SDG&E representative J. C. Thomas also offered support for the shut-off plan. Thomas argued, “we need new safety measures when weather conditions are extreme.” He argued that San Diego County is undermanned and underfunded in comparison to other Southern California Fire Departments. He argued that customers will be notified in advance before their power is shut off. Thomas also outlined the extreme conditions that trigger a shut-off: moisture level in twigs, moisture level in living plants, relative humidity, red flag warnings, and wind speed. Thomas stated that these conditions are only likely to occur once or twice a year, affecting roughly10,000 customers. Much of the information Thomas presented can be found at the SDG&E web site: http://www.sdge.com/safety/fireprep/aboutProgram.shtml.
San Diego Fire Department Chief Tracy Jarman also supported the plan. “Anytime you can prevent a fire, as a fire chief, I should prevent it.” Jarman said, adding that “history will repeat itself” if the status quo is not changed.
Frank Declerq, President of the San Diego City Firefighters, joined supporters in endorsing the shut-off plan and urged the City Council to do the same. “If we can remove a source of ignition, we’re getting ahead of the game,” Declerq said.
Also in support of the shut-off plan was Kenneth Klein, a resident of Scripps Ranch who lost his home in the 2003 fires and is a professor at California Western School of Law. Klein argued that if the resolution failed, the City Council would regret it after the next wildfire.
Opponents of the shut-off plan also turned out, arguing that the lack of electricity will create an even larger emergency. A spokesperson for a disability advocacy group pointed out that there are people whose lives rely on medical equipment.
Jennifer Healy of the Padre Dam Municipal Water District argued that power lines only account for 3% of fires and that “SDG&E’s plan creates an emergency.” Healy also stated that water districts cannot provide water to fire departments without electricity for the water pumps.
Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, pointed out that Reverse 911 calls would not work without power and that many seniors and low-income families cannot afford generators or the fuel to operate them.
George Courser, an opponent of the shut-off plan, testified that the San Diego Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected the plan because “it was too much danger. Too much fire danger.”
James Esterbrooks of the San Diego County Office of Education opposed the plan, arguing that “SDG&E refuses to guarantee prior notification of a shutoff.”
Representatives from AT&T and Cox Communications argued against SDG&E’s plan because a power shut-off will affect their communications networks in an emergency situation.
Diane Conklin of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona stated, “we may be in favor of a shut-off plan, but not this plan.” Conklin argued that the majority of all fires are not caused by power lines and that candles, portable generators, and auto accidents that will be used are more likely to cause fires. She added that the shut-off plan is the result of SDG&E looking to not be held accountable.
Denis Trafecanty, resident of Santa Ysabel stated, “this is all about money and the transfer of liability.”
A resident of Julian who was opposed to the plan quipped, “it should be renamed an emergency shut-out plan.”
Fire Chief Jarman offered a rebuttal to the statistic that power lines are accountable for only a small percentage of fires.
“When we look at the large fires we’ve had, the majority of them have been caused by power lines,” Jarman said.
Arguments on the support side tended to be based on the testimony given by the Fire Chief. Councilmembers Carl DeMaio and Tony Young supported the plan because it was supported by fire professionals as a way to make people safer. Council President Ben Hueso added that placing the burden on San Diego City Firefighters and taxpayers is unfair.
The San Diego Union-Tribune offers a list of campaign contributions given by SDG&E to members of the City Council, the City Attorney, and the Mayor. This list can be found here: http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/jul/27/1m27sempra22333-utili...
Ryan Lescure is an SDSU student and an intern with East County Magazine.