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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 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.

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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!

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