By Laura Cyphert
East County Community Action Coalition
At an April 2010 event at the East County Chamber of Commerce, Laura McDonald from SDG&E boldly stated that “there are not any fire risks with this project.”
It is not known if McDonald purposely intended to mislead San Diegans (or if she will someday be fined for misleading San Diegans), but what is known is that the “Fire and Fuels Management” section of the environmental impact report identifies numerous significant fire risks associated with the project, and even states that the project will “significantly increase the likelihood of catastrophic fires.”
Furthermore several of the most significant risks are categorized as “Class 1” risks, which are the most significant category of risk possible, and are unmitigible risks. In other words, there is no mitigation possible that could reduce the risk from “significant” to less than significant.
The following are some of the factors noted in the environmental impact report.
Laura McDonald has told San Diegans that utility companies, like SDG&E, have put transmission lines like this one up all over the country; and that it is not a fire danger here or anywhere else. However, quoting from the EIR, “San Diego County is an extremely fire-prone landscape. Winds originating from the Great Basin, locally known as Santa Anas, create extreme fire weather conditions characterized by low humidity, sustained high-speed winds, and extremely strong gusts. Santa Ana winds typically blow from the northeast over the Peninsular Range. As the air is forced through coastal mountain passes, wind speeds of 40 mph can be maintained for hours with gusts from 70 to 115 mph possible (Schroeder et al., 1964). Santa Ana winds create extremely dangerous fire conditions and have been the primary driver of most of California’s catastrophic wildfires. Because of the presence of dense, dry fuels and periodic Santa Ana winds, southern California has been characterized as having one of the most fire-prone landscapes in the world.”
According to section 15.2.2 of the EIR, “Fire Suppression and Firefighting”, Wildland firefighters working around energized power lines are exposed to electrical shock hazards including: direct contact with downed power lines, contact with electrically charged materials and equipment due to broken lines, contact with smoke that can conduct electricity between lines, and the use of solid-stream water applications around energized lines. Between 1980 and 1999 in the U.S., there were 10 firefighter fatalities due to electrical structure contact during wildfire suppression (NFPA, 2001). Maintaining a minimum 500-foot safety buffer greatly reduces the risk of electrical structure contact, and it also reduces the effectiveness of ground-based frontal attacks.
Impact F-3: Presence of the overhead transmission line would reduce the effectiveness of firefighting (Class I)
Aerial and ground-based firefighting efforts would be compromised by the introduction of an overhead transmission line due to the introduction of various hazards as identified in the Containment Conflict Model results, including increasing the risk of transmission line contact by aircraft or water buckets, creating indefensible landscapes, and obstructing historical fire containment boundaries.
The outcome of not fighting a wildfire in an otherwise defensible landscape under favorable weather conditions is that it is able to build in size and intensity unchecked by firefighters who are forced to wait until the fire passes through the area. Delays in containment allow for rapid fire perimeter growth. With the increase in the fire perimeter comes the potential for wind-blown embers to ignite spot fires ahead of the fire front, which further complicates fire suppression activities.
Impact F-2: Presence of the overhead transmission line would increase the probability of a wildfire (Class I)
The presence of the overhead transmission line would create an ongoing source of potential wildfire ignitions for the life of the project. Line faults can be caused by such unpredictable events as conductor contact by floating debris, gun shots, and helicopter collisions; these events are rare but would be unavoidable.
Impact F-2 is considered a significant impact because certain ignition sources are unavoidable. Due to the potential for unavoidable ignitions related to the presence of the overhead transmission line to occur during extreme fire weather, the presence of the project would significantly increase the likelihood of a catastrophic wildfire (Class I). The risk of ignitions and the risk of damage from a project-related ignition can be reduced, though not to a level that is less than significant.
The EIR is full of other significant risks that clearly state that San Diego will be put at significant fire risk as a result of this transmission.
The CPUC has required certain mitigation measures, but these will not reduce the fire threat to a less than significant level. These mitigation measures include developing a fire mitigation plan and funding certain fire prevention programs in San Diego.
Currently fire departments are meeting with SDG&E and discussing how the mitigation funds will be split between districts. The funds will in no way compensate for an increase in firestorms, increased fire prevention costs, increased insurance premiums, and the property and lives that will be lost.
This project, and the risk it brings to the people of San Diego, is an unacceptable risk. What is worse, is that people like Laura McDonald are withholding these facts from the public, and instead telling the public that there are no fire risks with this project. Unacceptable!
Significant Risks of Firestorms from the Sunrise Powerlink include:
● Firefighters can not fight fires under energized lines.
● It takes at least 30 minutes to obtain approvals to de-energize a line (according to the Fire Marshall for the Sunrise Powerlink). In 30 minutes a small brush fire can become a large fire.
● The EIR states that firefighters may have to wait until a fire burns through an area until it can be fought. (Many homeowners will be uninsurable).
● Some areas along the Sunrise Powerlink route are only defensible via air.
● The powerlines, in some cases, will be taller than the nearby mountains, and will eliminate access into canyons and valleys.
● Smoke from wildfires can conceal transmission lines, and make it dangerous for firefighting planes to fly near transmission lines.
● Powerlines adjacent to reservoirs block access to firefighting aircraft.
● New access roads will bring traffic that will increase fire ignition sources.
The opinions expressed in this editorial reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.