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Heat Puts Power Supply to Test

Energy companies, expecting overwhelming usage this sweltering week, urge the public to conserve as much electricity as possible.

July 17, 2006|Teresa Watanabe and Cynthia Cho | Times Staff Writers

Energy officials are predicting record-breaking power usage across California today and throughout the week, as a blistering heat wave continues to grip the state.

Officials appealed for conservation, asking consumers Sunday to help avoid straining the power system as offices, industrial plants and schools reopen today and demand increases. In Los Angeles, however, a cooling trend was expected to keep energy usage at normal levels, said Department of Water and Power spokeswoman Gale Harris.

Compared to the triple-digit heat that swept parts of the state Saturday, slightly cooler temperatures prevailed Sunday, keeping usage below projected levels and helping Southern California firefighters gain the upper hand on wildfires in the Yucca Valley.

By evening, firefighters had gotten control of 60% of the Sawtooth blaze, which had burned 62,000 acres of desert brush, killed one person and destroyed property valued at $8.7 million, including at least 50 houses, eight mobile homes, 200 vehicles and 171 sheds, barns and other buildings.

The remaining fire had been confined largely to rocky areas inaccessible by roads in the Coon Creek area, with firefighters being airlifted in for 24-hour shifts.

Only 10% of the nearby Millard fire, which consumed 15,572 acres in a very remote area, had been contained, with no reports of personal property damage.

About 3,800 firefighters from throughout California and Arizona battled the blazes, doing controlled burning and building trenches to prevent flames from spreading into Big Bear and other residential areas of the San Bernardino Mountains.

At the same time, firefighters braced for possible thunderstorms with wind gusts and lightning, which is what ignited the blazes Wednesday.

At Yucca Valley High School, Robert A. Balfour, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, worked in a portable classroom, monitoring a radar and satellite system. Every 15 to 30 minutes, he stepped outside to look at the clouds in case firefighters needed to be warned. In areas where most of the vegetation was burned, firefighters in the field could attract lightning as the tallest "rods" in the desert.

Intense rains could also produce flash floods. "One quarter-inch in 15 minutes is enough to cause flash flooding, mudslides and debris flowing," Balfour said.

Little rain fell, but a cloud cover lowered temperatures and energy usage, unlike on Saturday, when there were scattered power outages in Simi Valley, Palm Springs and elsewhere. Still, Southland residents scurried to find ways to keep cool -- some consciously trying to do so without consuming energy.

Altadena resident Lucy Bloom said she went shopping in air-conditioned stores and visited a friend with a pool Sunday to beat the heat. In recent years, she said, she's ripped out her carpeting and put screens on windows to cool the house.

Although the scorching heat drove her to turn on her air-conditioning for half an hour Saturday -- the first time since last summer -- Bloom said she tries hard to conserve energy to help both the planet and her pocketbook.

"I really try not to use much electricity during the year, especially during times like this because I know it could lead to blackouts," said Bloom, a speech therapist. "I care about this planet and we need to use less energy."

In Los Angeles, peak electricity demand hit 4,623 megawatts by about 4:23 p.m., compared to 5,171 the previous day, said Harris of the DWP. One megawatt equals one million watts and is enough electricity to power from 500 to 1,000 homes at any given moment.

Power demand in Southern California Edison's 50,000-square-mile service area, which includes parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, reached about 19,037 megawatts at 4 p.m., compared to 20,700 megawatts Saturday.

Hundreds of customers in the Van Nuys and Los Feliz areas suffered heat-related outages of a few hours Sunday, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Power for about 1,500 customers in Palms went out at about 5 p.m. for unknown reasons and still hadn't been restored at 10 p.m. An underground cable was found to be responsible for a power outage in the Hollywood Hills that left about 2,300 customers without power for about 16 hours beginning Saturday night, with power restored by late afternoon Sunday.

In Orange County, heavy power usage caused outages for hundreds of residents Sunday in Santa Ana, Villa Park, Irvine, Lake Forest and Fullerton. Some Edison customers were without power for hours.

Edison spokesman Steven Conroy said power outages were also reported in San Bernardino. Overall, however, he said the number of customers affected by outages, flickering lights or other problems had dropped to fewer than 10,000, compared with as many as three times that number Saturday.

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