Future community forums planned March 23 in Valley Center, March 30 in Ramona and April 6 in Warner Springs. View schedule here.
By Miriam Raftery
March 22, 2018 (San Diego’s East County) – At the Descanso Town Hall on March 16th, SDG&E representatives met with residents to discuss efforts to improve fire safety and hear community concerns, including ideas for reducing impacts of power shut-offs during high fire-risk weather conditions. Representatives from 211 San Diego , the local Red Cross, the Descanso Fire Safe Council and the area’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) were also on hand.
Portions of Descanso had a dozen or more outages late last year, much to the frustration of many residents. But the outskirts of Descanso have also had among the most extreme conditions.
Residents had mixed views on the outages. Tammy Cooker, owner of the Descanso Junction restaurant and a survivor of the 2003 Cedar Fire, told ECM that despite losing some business from the outages, “It’s better than fires. “ She has since purchased a generator.
But Julie Salmons (photo, right), who runs the Descanso Neighbors Facebook page, told ECM that outages have put residents at risk, particularly many without cell phone service and those reliant on electricity to pump wells. She also thinks SDG&E should have to pay for claims for food losses, which the company has declined to do. “People out here are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said, adding that her household lost food that they obtained through fishing and hunting, so even if claims were allowed, they wouldn’t have receipts to prove losses. Asked what else SDG&E could do, she suggests,, “Why can’t they buy a whole bunch of generators and surge protectors and give them to us as a goodwill gesture, or sell them to us at cost?”
“I’ve received lots of calls and lots of e-mails on this issue,” said Scott Crider, Vice President of customer relations for SDG&E. “We need to hear from customers on what we need to do, to reduce the impacts” he said of the outages. “As we go through this changing environment, we are doing everything we can to reduce the impacts. “
During the community presentation, SDG&E senior meteorologist Steve Vanderburg(photo, left), who formerly worked for the National Weather Service, said he joined SDG&E seven years ago to help build the company’s weather program, developing new tools and technologies. That information is used not only by SDG&E, but other decision makers to operate the system as safely as possible, he said, adding, “I was in Julian in 2007, and saw what happens when things go wrong,” referring to the devastating fire storms.”
Before the program, Brian D’Agostino (photo, right), another SDG&E meteorologist, told ECM, “The west side of Cuyamaca Peak is the windiest place in Southern California.” Winds well in excess of 100 miles an hour were clocked there in December by SDG&E weather stations, he said, adding that back during the 2007 firestorms, winds may have exceeded 120 miles per hour.
Vanderburg recalled that before 2007, there were only federal weather stations in our backcountry, which left big gaps. Today, there are 170 weather stations, with data available to the public including wind speed, humidity and more. “It’s great for real time situational awareness,” he said, but added, “We need to anticipate what’s coming.” So SDG&E has developed high-definition forecast models “like what you seen on the news, but on steroids,” he said. Now they can access data from places like Guatay, Descanso, Lake Cuyamaca and Boulder Creek. While the system has not been perfect in its predictions, he acknowledged, “if there was over forecasting, we’re fine tuning.” In addition to weather conditions, SDG&E monitors other fire conditions such as vegetation moisture levels.
This data is shared with fire agencies such as Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the National Weather Service. “This is the kind of data I wish I had,” he recalls of his days managing the red flag warning program for the NWS.
December 2017 brought Santa winds following the 2016-17 winter that was the wettest on record, following by the hottest summer on record, and fall rains that didn’t happen. Add in hurricane force wind potential, and the fire danger was “explosive.”
He emphasized that the December conditions were so extreme that weather forecasts added a new color to maps – purple. SDG&E also utilizes Wildfire Risk Reduction Modeling or WRRM to see when ignition risk is highest and the program simulates the potential for rapid fire growth. Sixteen cameras from Alert SDG&E and 80 from UCSD’s HP Wren program offer the ability to pan, tilt and zoom images from local mountaintops to triangulate where fires are when the start within 50 to 100 yards – a technology now used by dispatchers to pinpoint locations and send out resources.
SDG&E made the decision to shut off power – in some places, multiple times, rather than risk lines starting fires. The company representatives explained that it did make efforts to notify customers of possible outages in advance, and again shortly before an outage was imminent. Those with medical equipment can sign up for the Medical Alert Baseline customers program for notification and a personalized visit if there is no response.
Factors used to determine whether to shut off power include fire and weather conditions, field observations and whether other wildfires are burning in the region.
That decision to cut power to thousands of homes across the county, in some cases multiple times, came shortly after the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that the utility can’t charge customers for its uninsured losses in the 2007 fires, when its lines were blamed by state agencies for causing three of the local firestorms. The utility contends the timing of the November and December outages was coincidental, helping to save lives, not merely protect the company from liability costs.
Some were without power for a week or more. That’s because power can’t go back on until SDG&E has patrolled the entire line to be sure it’s safe; air patrols can’t fly night and any damage must first be repaired before power is restored.
Cliff Hu from the Red Cross noted that the past year has been “horrific” for disaster response with three major hurricanes nationally as well as the wildfires in Northern and Southern California. He urged everyone to make a disaster kit with supplies for people and pets, and to have an evacuation plan including contacts and family meeting places outside the community. He also advised staying informed during disasters – a challenge in some backcountry areas particularly during outages.
You can find tips on how to prepare your emergency kit and plans at www.ReadySanDIego.org, and sign up for Alerts San Diego and the Red Cross app on your mobile phone. Ray Chaney with Ready San Diego warned that if you only have a cell phone, you will not receive reverse 911 calls unless you have downloaded the San diego Emergency app and called 211 to register.
Teresa Greenhalgh, program manager for CERT’s southern California region under Cal Fire’s jurisdiction, explained that her team was activated during the December outages and went to each community, doing welfare checks when asked. But she added that she is in “constant contact” with Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire Authority’s division chief Gary Croucher, who determines when to activate CERT.
After the formal presentations, the panel fielded questions from the audience.
Terry Forrest, Chair of the Descanso planning group, said many residents were unaware that SDG&E had command trailers with mobile charging stations and water bottles. He suggested better notification and signage. Crider responded that based on feedback elsewhere, “Some communities would prefer permanent generators and batteries at a library or community center” instead of mobile trailers, which are limited in number and can’t be deployed everywhere during outages. SDG&E is looking into having pre-defined places that could have supplies on hand for people to go during outages.
Salmons says the Descanso Neighbors Facebook page has over 3,000 active members and networks with other rural community sites, where she says there are also many concerns. She acknowledged that some did receive calls that power might be shut off, but points out, “Nobody had any understanding that this could be such a prolonged event.” While acknowledging the fire danger, she added, “I don’t have cell phone coverage at my house. Most people here don’t…and now we’re fighting to keep our land lines,” she said, referring to an AT&T proposal to end land line service. “We have to drive to a park and ride to see what’s happening. We can’t call for pizza, and Perkins (general store) has no generators.”
She added bluntly, “You’ve reduced fire danger, but we’re playing dodge ball. Our kids are driving down to Alpine with gas cans in their vehicles. When the power is out, we have no radios. We have to drive to check on rural neighbors and everybody here has guns, they don’t like strangers.” She mentioned a woman with a herd of goats who couldn’t get well water. “Those bottles of water aren’t feeding cattle or goats.”
Crider replied, “We heard that, loud and clear,” at other community meetings SDG&E has held, though he didn’t offer a solution of yet for the issue of water for livestock during outages.
A community planning group member from Spring Valley asked about use of drones or balloons to restore connectivity during outages.
Crider said the company is still trying to find solutions to the communication problems during outages, and indicated a willingness to look into such options.
Lee Duran said she moved here from Loma and recalled grant programs to help survivors of the 2003 and 2007 wildfires. “Why can’t a grant be set up to help people get generators, for people who can’t afford it?” she asked.
Crider asked a question of the audience in return. “Is that something other people want?” He said some have voiced concerns that portable generators may cause concerns if used improperly, and asked for feedback.
Ron Richards, who lives in the Guatay area, congratulated the panel for fielding tough questions, noting “it’s tough to take the darts.” He plugged ham radios as an option for communicating when phone service goes down, and for areas without cell service.
A librarian said she heard about this forum from East County Magazine, not SDG&E and added, “I don’t get notifications when the power will be out at the library, so I can be ready.” Similarly, a woman from the Descanso Community Water District wants to see priority notification for water districts since surges can cause harm.
Mark McIntyre implored SDG&E to “find out what the right thing is to do, and do it.” He said at his residence in Sherilton Valley, his family had to leave, including his pregnant wife and their children. he was angry that their claim for food loss was denied and that SDG&E says “it’s absolved because these are acts of nature…We’re out $600 in food…now we’re looking into a generator, but I’m not able to afford a generator right now.”
Maris Brancheau from Protect Our Communities Foundation wants SDG&E to help Descanso come up with local solar energy production with battery backup “so it doesn’t fall on individual homeowners to get generators.”
A Spring Valley planner said planning group members, libraries and others want to help close gaps, adding, “What can we do as agents of positive change?”
The CERT team manager encouraged everyone to sign up for CERT’s free training, even if you don’t want to be a CERT team member.
A resident asked about a time line for replacing wood power poles with steel poles, and whether that would change anything regarding outages.
Willie Thomas, an SDG&E manager overseeing replacement of wood to steel poles and other upgrades, said it will be a couple of years before that’s done.
Jesse Raymond, Chair of the Descanso Fire Safe Council asked, “Is research being done to lessen the number of outages?”
Thomas replied that the new lines being installed are designed to withstand much higher winds than in the past, up to 95 mph, as well as to withstand ice, another hazard in this area with winter storms. “We are building to a higher standard,” he said, adding that another upgrade is widening clearances around lines and adding wider cross-arms to hold sturdier wires. They are also working to be able to de-energize a broken line before it hits the ground, since even a falling tree or mylar balloon can spark a fire.
One good news message for residents, Thomas provided stating , “We may raise the threshold to turn off the power.”
A white-haired woman (photo, right) objected, “So not only do we have to put up with these really big poles – we asked for undergrounding – now we have to put up with outages, and now the head of the CPUC (Michael Picker) is suggesting charger higher rates in high fire risk communities!”
Crider quickly interjected, “That wasn’t us.”
Meteorologist Vanderburg said they are looking at technologies that could reduce the number of outages.
“Crider stated, “ There is an ongoing investment to see what more we can do on a whole lot of fronts. We hear you…We’re looking to see how we can better partner with you to better serve you.”
Raymond cited untrimmed eucalyptus trees in Scripps Ranch and asked why the small town of Descanso has had many outages while Scripps Ranch “a community of 200,000 that burned in 2003 and where city councilmembers live” hasn’t had power shutoffs. Vanderburg noted that the 2003 Cedar Fire started in East County, and that wind conditions here are far different than in Scripps Ranch, where many power lines are underground.
Vanderburg added, “A lot of us at SDG&E are backcountry residents. I came home to a dark house. I came home to food spoilage in my fridges. My kids go to school with kids in this neighborhood. Taking it out on the community would be like taking it out on ourselves.”
ECM editor Miriam Raftery asked two questions. First, she noted that some residents and businesses have indicated they had damage from power surges after power was restored, and what could be done to prevent this or compensate for such losses. Crider said, “We’re hearing a lot about power surge protectors,” and promised to look into the issue. This won’t be the last time you hear from us.”
We also asked whether SDG&E had looked into technology such as the Loon program that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reportedly used to launch balloons with solar panels over Puerto Rico, restoring internet connectivity and cell phone text messaging during the months-long power outage there after a hurricane. Crider said he wasn’t familiar with this, but would like to learn more.
Salmon noted that without water for those on wells, “we can’t flush our toilet” and worse “if there is a spot fire that starts in your yard, you can’t turn on the hose. It scares me to death.” She added, “We did have two fires by the side of the road; the men in our community drive around with shovels to put out fires.”
She also noted that some residents don’t know how to safely use generators and said a fire started from a generator in Julian. She added that some residents have done dangerous things during outages, such as barbecuing meat in their freezers that would otherwise spoil.
Crider (photo, left) closed by saying the comments they heard from Descanso residents were “very consistent with what we’ve heard in other communities. We’ll commit that we will communicate back to you,” adding, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Upcoming SDG&E commuunity forums:
VALLEY CENTER: Friday, March 23, 5-7:30 p.m. Harrah's Resourt Event Center, 777 Harrah's Rincon Way
RAMONA: Friday, March 30, 5-7:30 p.m. Ramona Community Center, 434 Aqua Lane, Ramona
WARNER SPRINGS: Friday, April 6, 4- 6:30 p.m. Warner Springs High School cafeteria, 30951 Highway79, Warner Springs