SDG&E to hire private firefighters and a helicopter

The power company that is seeking approval to turn off the electricity to large sections of the local back country during periods of high fire danger, San Diego Gas and Electric, will be hiring private engine crews and renting and later purchasing a helicopter that can suppress fires that their work crews may inadvertently start.

Here is an excerpt from the North County Times. The entire article is HERE.

A company with a local presence is poised to play a potentially pivotal role in preventing San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s power lines from sparking wildfires this fall.

Utility officials said Tuesday that they have hired Fire Stop, a Walnut Grove company that is essentially a contract fire department, to follow electric line crews around in fire-prone areas of the backcountry September through November so they can pounce if flames ignite in nearby brush. Ramona is the headquarters of the company’s Southern California operations.

SDG&E also has rented a helicopter capable of dumping 1,000 gallons of water for the same three months, said Mike Niggli, chief operating officer, at a news conference designed to spotlight the utility’s fire prevention efforts in advance of a widely anticipated decision Thursday.

Stung by state investigations that blamed SDG&E for three of the massive October 2007 fires and having paid out $740 million in lawsuit settlements in connection with those blazes, the company has petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to turn off electricity in dry, windy weather. SDG&E says such fire prevention outages would black out, on average, about 24,000 people for 13 hours, but could affect as many as 110,000 people.

SDG&E maintains the outages are a necessary inconvenience that would prevent falling trees and slapping wires from triggering infernos. Such blackouts could affect De Luz, Fallbrook, Pala, Pauma Valley, Valley Center, Ramona and parts of Poway and Escondido.

But the proposal is widely opposed by water districts, schools, consumer groups and others who say the loss of power would compound the danger backcountry residents would face if a fire broke out for some other reason. Opponents say seriously disabled people would be cut off from life-sustaining medical equipment, many residents of the blacked-out area would miss warnings to evacuate and evacuations would become chaotic with inoperable traffic signals.

SDG&E also is seeking immunity from liability if something goes wrong, as a result of the power being out.

The commission is slated to choose between two recommendations Thursday: Reject the plan, or authorize it as a one-season experiment with conditions. Neither recommendation calls for granting immunity.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.