EDIITORIAL: SDGE’S PROPOSAL TO SHUT-OFF POWER DURING TIMES OF SEVERE, FIRE-PRONE WEATHER RAISED IRE OF HUNDREDS OF BACKCOUNTRY RESIDENTS AT CPUC HEARING

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By George Barnett

 

April 8, 2009 (Alpine)—Over 300 people attended a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hearing in Alpine tonight on SDG&E’s proposal to shut off power during fire-prone weather conditions. People turned out from El Cajon to In-ko-pah in the desert and the mountain community of Julian; with a smattering from areas unaffected by the proposal, such as Chula Vista. The backdrop to the hearing was the anti-Sunrise PowerLink rally attended by over 600 people in Alpine the night before at which Supervisor Dianne Jacob said of the transmission line’s proponents, “Follow the money!”

Forty-one persons signed-up to speak at the CPUC hearing. About eight were elected persons of various agencies and planning groups. Supervisor Jacob was the only senior elected politician to attend the CPUC hearing and the anti-SRPL rally the night before. Speakers were against the proposal by 9:1.

 

Those in support included a person from the Chula Vista chamber, a representative of an organization claiming to represent restaurants across the county, and surprisingly Augie Ghio, Chief, San Miguel Fire Protection. Just one supporter was from the backcountry. Overwhelmingly people were against the idea, urging instead that SDGE upgrade, harden and maintain its facilities so they didn’t “fall down” or “arc” in Sana Ana winds and cause fires.

 

Fire Chief Ghio said shutting down power was a good idea because any proposal to stop wildfires before they started had to be good. Ghio made no observations as to the unintended disastrous consequences of such action. In his report to the fire district board on March 12th, Ghio recorded the next step in securing funding for the district’s proposed “multi-million dollar” fire training facility as, “Next step present packet to Sempra Energy”.

 

The district currently is a member agency in the Heartland Fire Training Facility with the El Cajon, La Mesa, Santee and Lakeside fire districts. On the other side, a Padre Dam spokesperson said it wouldn’t be able to deliver water to firefighters without electricity – something a couple of other fire people pointed out.

 

Many folks from remote backcountry areas, where there are no water agencies and where pumped well water is stored, spoke as though they intended to “shelter-in-place”--stay and fight fires on their property (having previously taken the prudent prevention/clearing measures). Several pointed out that without electricity it would be impossible to use stored well-water (10,000 gallons to a new county policy) to wet down buildings and ground, and to actually put out fires. Plus their stored water would also not be available to the rural fire districts if the power was shutdown.

 

Neville Connell, who heads the Greater Alpine Fire Safe Council, presented some statistics garnered in part from Cleveland National Forest indicating there have been 600 fires the past five years, of which 150 were started by SDGE facilities, 50 by lightning, and hundreds more by other means. The point was that SDGE facility problems seemed responsible for 25% of all fires. That’s quite bad enough, and ought to be fixed. But while turning-off the electricity during periods of high fire alert might preclude an SDGE caused fire, it would also preclude fire-fighting in the Backcountry on fires started by the majority/multitude of other sources.

 

Shutting down power posed much greater risk than the risk mitigation SDGE seeks. All the other comments about the unintended disastrous consequences of shutting-off power were reiterated again and again (health issues of the ill and infirmed, no communications, etc.). Supervisor Jacob spoke forcefully against the idea, and objected to CPUC making this a separate matter to the Sunrise PowerLink project – saying it’s all intertwined.

 

As other higher-up elected politicians were all missing in action, the floor was left to planning group members like me. I spoke on the basis of personal experience that there’s no reason for SDGE facilities to be causing fires.

 

“Turning-off the juice” during an inclement weather condition that’s entirely normal for the area was to consider a performance level below that of third world countries. If it is true that SDGE facilities have caused 167 fires in the past five or so years, there may well be something seriously wrong in terms of design, operation and maintenance--matters that need correction. In the end, it seemed the vast majority of attendees left with the impression that something is wrong with SDGE’s facilities, and that SDGE is seeking a way out from under future liabilities for fires caused by them.

 

 George Barnett is an elected member of the Alpine Planning Group. He is also President of the Back Country Land Trust. The trust owns 750 acres of pristine land in the Potrero/Hauser area of Las Californias in process of donation to the People of the United States. The SRPL transmission line route crosses the property posing considerable, unmitigated environmental damage. BCLT is against the SRPL project in its entirety and is a member of the “Smart Energy Solutions for San Diego” campaign coordinated by the Sierra Club. This editorial reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. If you wish to submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.