SDG&E THREAT TO CUT POWER DURING FIRE DANGER SPARKS HEATED OUTCRY AMONG EAST COUNTY RESIDENTS

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Large crowd likely at CPUC meeting Tuesday in San Diego

By Miriam Raftery

October 13, 2008 (San Diego’s East County) - Backcountry residents
are reacting with shock,  praise and outrage to a notice sent by San Diego
Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to 45,000 customers warning that power lines
may be shut off when fire danger is high.  With red flag warnings issued
by the National Weather Service through Tuesday night, thousands of East County
and North County residents may find themselves without power Monday or Tuesday.

“Many of my neighbors are up in arms. The guy next to me has about 280
acres, and he’s about ready to storm Washington,” said Bill Root,
an Alpine resident who relies on power from SDG&E to pump well water that
sustains his horses and other livestock as well as his family. 

“We
have a 10,000 holding tank, but during a fire, the fire department uses it
to fight fires,” Root told East County Magazine

“We opened up our own emergency operation center at 7 a.m. this morning
in response to the National Weather Center’s red red flag warning for
San Diego County,” SDG&E spokesperson April Bolduc said in an interview
Monday morning. “We are at high alert, but all five criteria have not
been met for shutting off power.” Weather forecasts indicate wind speed
could “hit the trigger” by tonight and tomorrow morning through
San Diego County’s inland valleys and mountains as well as parts of southern
Orange County, she added.

Root is considering buying a generator, but is worried about the cost, which
he expects will be several thousand dollars.  “SDG&E is just
protecting themselves,” he said, noting that the utility faces potentially
huge liability claims for major fires that Cal Fire has blamed on arcing from
SDG&E lines.

Boulevard resident Donna Tisdale noted that “many of our seniors and
struggling families cannot afford a backup generator or the fuel to run it.”  In
addition, a power shut-off could prove deadly for individuals who rely on power
to run medical equipment such as respirators. 

But other area residents have praised SDG&E’s plan, arguing that
a power shut off is the lesser of two evils.  “Would your livestock
be better protected during a 1-3 day power outage that you could start preparing
for now – or in another 200,000 acre fire that you haven’t a prayer
of fighting?” asked Patsy Fritz in a post to a listserve group on local
land use issues.  Fritz noted that SDG&E can already shut off power
to save energy during rolling blackouts or to protect firefighters from a lethal
combination of live power and water once a fire occurs.  While power outages
are inconvenient, Fritz pointed out, “the effects on people who were
damaged by the fires took a much longer toll on their lives.”

Darrell Beck, in a post on the same list serve, said people should be prepared
to do without electricity, adding that his household has done just that due
to problems with lines that failed in bad weather. “We always had a backup
system such as kerosene lamps, wood, gas or oil stoves. We had water storage
tanks with a week or more supply; we had gasoline pumps and windmills. We had
food storage and root cellars or spring houses,” he wrote, adding that
power lines could burn down anyway if power is not shut off and arcing lines
ignite a wildfire.  “I plan to be prepared and not complain if the
power goes off,” he concluded. 

Charlene Ayers, operator of the list serve, opposes the shutdown orders.  She
has called for SDG&E to properly maintain its lines instead of ordering
massive power outages.   Others have expressed concern that people
who rush to buy generators and improperly use or hook them up could actually
cause fires, leading one poster to ask whether SDG&E should provide technical
expertise to assist homeowners in installing generators. 

On
Tuesday, October 14 at 6 p.m. the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)
will hold a public meeting at the al Bahr Shrine Center, 5440 Kearny Mesa
Road in San Diego regarding the October 2007 San Diego area fires.

“If you want your voice to be heard about the fire strategy for the
future in the backcountry, you should come to the CPUC meeting,” said
Martha Sullivan, an activist who has opposed SDG&E’s proposed Powerlink
project because of fire risks and other concerns.  She and others believe
that by asking regulators to approve its shutdown plans, SDG&E now seeks
to pass on liability to CPUC. 

“If the CPUC says no, when the next fire hits, SDG&E will argue
in court that it wanted to prevent its lines from starting fires, but the commission
wouldn’t let it,” Don Woods wrote in an e-mail forwarded by Sullivan.  “If
the Commission says yes, then SDG&E will refer all the people hurt by the
shutdown to the commission, saying its acting under CPUC orders.”  Woods
urged the CPUC not to get “sucked into SDG&E’s trap.”  Instead,
he believes the CPUC should order SDG&E to comply with existing laws and
regulations and seek ways to prevent fires that don’t require cutting
off people’s power.

SDG&E has stated that the company has taken additional steps to prevent
wildfires, including replacing over 300 wood poles with steel poles, using
heavier wire in some rural communities, expanding aerial inspections and adding
high-resolution cameras to inspect transmission lines.

A Cal Fire report has
found that last October’s devastating Witch Creek,
Guejito and Rice Canyon fires were caused by arcing from SDG&E lines.  Area
residents complained before the fires that some lines were improperly maintained.
Facing potentially huge liability claims, SDG&E now indicates it may shut
down power without notice, though efforts will be made to notify customers
first, if five conditions are met:

  • a red flag warning of fire danger issued by the National Weather Service
    (NWS)
  • sustained winds greater than 35 mph or wind gusts greater than 55 mph
  • relative humidity less than 20 percent
  • moisture level less than 6% in non-living materials such as twigs and leaves,
    determined by NWS
  • moisture level of 75% or less in living plants and bushes, as determined
    by Cal Fire

Asked whether other utilities in California have resorted to preemptive power
shut offs during high fire conditions, Bolduc replied, “I am not sure
what other utilities are doing.  We’ve listened to the concerns
of our customers and the community. We want to make sure that medically sensitive
customers and critical customers such as water districts have a plan in place
before we turn off any power during a red flag condition.”

People with medical needs, such as respirators, who can't afford generators should call 1-800-411-SDGE. "We will help them to the best ability that we can," said Bolduc. "We have numerous programs in place for low income customers. We definitely want to make sure that they have a safety plan in place. That applies to people with livestock, too, although they are not necessarily considered critical customers." All County residents should have a safety plan in place to protect themselves, their families and animals in the event of a power outage, Bolduc added.

That’s small
comfort for back country residents who continue to worry over how to access
well water to fight fires and sustain livestock, prevent spoilage of refrigerated
foods, operate medical equipment and businesses during a prolonged outage.

The
National Weather Service’s red flag alert for San Diego County’s
mountains and valleys is in effect through 6 p.m. Tuesday, with wind gusts
of up to 40 mph predicted in some places.  View
the alert here
.

SDG&E recommends that customers sign up for reverse 9-11 calls at www.readysandiego.org to
receive advance warnings of shut-offs, when time permits such warnings.

You can also sign
up at this link
to receive East County Magazine’s free
wildfire and emergency alerts
via e-mail.  Signing
up for both e-mail and phone alerts is wise, since phone lines and cell phone
towers burned down in some areas during last year’s fires, yet many residents
still had e-mail service.  E-mail alerts can reach you at home or at work,
or via portable devices such as Blackberry units. 

Do you believe SDG&E should shut off power lines during high fire risk
conditions? Please take
our poll
.

Comments

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Fire Chiefs raise red flag over SDG&E plan

These comments from Vista's Fire Chief were forwarded to me this evening, raising disturbing questions about just how well SDG&E thought out its shutoff plans. Apparently it didn't bother to consult with fire stations first!

All-
I learned yesterday SDG&E will be implementing a plan, effective October 1, 2008, where they will deenergize certain power grids across the county during times of red flag warnings for about 2-5 hours during the day. These areas involve extreme and very high fire hazard areas and include fire stations #2 and #3. They are saying it will affect some 6000 homes. The County Fire Chiefs have expressed extreme disagreement with this plan, but to no avail. Our concerns include folks on ventilators, oxygen machines, etc that will be adversely impacted. We asked about some kind of public informational campaigns, but to date little has been done.

SDG&E is saying they will be rolling out an educational campaign, but with one week to go it could get very interesting for us and our citizens. We may want to put something on the web site regarding this. Also, this may be something the cities and districts may want to weigh in on. For the fire department, we need to be sure our generators are up to par. Let me know if you have any questions. More as I have it.

Gary Fisher, EFO, CFO
Fire Chief
Vista Fire Department
175 No Melrose
Vista, CA. 92083