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Emotions flare in San Diego County over utility's plan to shut off power

The PUC is to vote on a San Diego Gas & Electric Co. proposal to turn off electricity in rural areas in fire-prone times. An opponent says the firm is avoiding 'hardening' its equipment.

September 08, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — Even as firefighters continue fighting the Station fire, the largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history, an emotionally charged issue is flaring over how to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2007 fires in San Diego County.

On Thursday, the Public Utility Commission is set to vote on a San Diego Gas & Electric Co. proposal to turn off power to some back-country areas during fire-prone times of high winds and low humidity.

The fires, which burned more than 200,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 homes, were caused by sparking electrical wires blown down by unusually fierce Santa Ana winds. Power company executives say the shut-off plan would be used sparingly and with several hours' notice. The company has offered to buy generators for schools and sent debit cards to low-income elderly residents in case their homes are without power and they need to evacuate.

For people with health problems who could find themselves without power to run breathing machines and other life-saving equipment, the company is offering emergency transportation to hospitals.

Still, back-country residents are famously self-reliant and suspicious of government. Of nearly 1,000 people thought to be eligible for the assistance, only three dozen have signed up.

Seventeen areas, with a total of 60,000 customers, would be on the list to possibly have the power shut down when the National Weather Service issues a red-flag warning. The plan would go into effect when moisture is low and the wind hits a sustained speed of 35 mph or gusts up to 55 mph.

Opponents of the shut-off plan say it would make rural areas more vulnerable to brush fires by leaving water agencies without the power to pump water when it is needed to extinguish small fires before they grow. They accuse the utility of putting a higher priority on limiting future liability than on protecting lives.

The company recently agreed to pay $740 million to insurance companies for property damage done by the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires that roared through the county in October 2007.

The dispute has rekindled anger at the utility company to a level not seen since rate controversies in the early 1980s. It has also displayed anew the complexity of fire politics in San Diego County, and led to recriminations and an unhappy split between the San Diego City Council and the Board of Supervisors.

The 2007 fires began in the unincorporated northeastern section of the county where fire protection is provided by a hodgepodge of volunteer agencies, small departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service.

Driven by Santa Ana winds, the fires roared southward into the city and destroyed hundreds of homes in Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch, where the chronically underfunded San Diego Fire Department struggled for control.

The City Council has endorsed the utility's plan. "We cannot afford to keep crossing our fingers and hoping that catastrophic fires won't spread into the city of San Diego from the rural areas of the county," said Councilwoman Marti Emerald as the council prepared to vote recently.

But the supervisors voted 3 to 2 to oppose it. Chairwoman Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the fire-prone back country, is pointed in her criticism of San Diego Gas & Electric Co., a division of Sempra Energy. She says the company is trying to avoid spending money to "harden" its operation by installing underground lines, metal poles and devices that keep wires from battering each other.

"This has nothing to do with safety," Jacob said. "It's about saving money for SDG&E and shifting liability to other people and agencies."

Company officials say they want to prevent a repeat of 2007 and to enhance fire protection throughout the county. "You have to take the mind-set: This is about 3 million people, not 60,000," said Michael R. Niggli, chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Niggli said the company has spent more than $40 million on system improvements and preparation for the shut-off program. He said computer modeling shows that no more than 10,000 customers would be without power in any incident. Also, the company notes that San Diego is the only major county in the state without a county fire department.

"The lack of coordination and the lack of funding is critical," Niggli said. "We have less [fire fighting] capability than some of our neighbors."

Jacob bristles at that assessment. She says she recently led a successful drive to increase coordination between rural agencies, which have resisted a regional approach because it undercuts local control.

"In reality, it was SDG&E that was unprepared" for the high winds of 2007, Jacob said. "For decades, they had neglected their infrastructure."

The utility, in a separate matter, has asked the PUC for a rate hike to cover the cost of insurance and has taken the position that losses due to fires should be covered by ratepayers, not shareholders. The request has further antagonized opponents.

Among those residents eagerly awaiting the decision are Mark and Pat Payne, whose home in Ramona, southeast of Escondido, was destroyed in the Witch fire. They are suing the utility to recover losses not covered by insurance.

"If I thought for a second this was about safety, I'd be for it in a heartbeat," said Mark Payne, 54, a parts and service manager for a Honda dealership. "This is about liability and corporate greed."

Not so, Niggli says.

"We're trying to see that we're not an ignition source," he said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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