California state regulators halt power company’s power shutoff plan

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a temporary order blocking the plan by San Diego Gas and Electric to preemptively shut off the electricity for up to 150,000 people at a time when the fire danger meets their predetermined criteria. SDG&E had expected to implement the plan on September 1, but the commission put a halt to it at least until they can meet on September 10.

Photo: ginsnob / Flickr

The power company has said shutting off the electricity during dry and windy conditions would prevent fires that could be started by their power lines. Many groups are opposed to the plan, including schools, water districts, and disabled people who rely on life-sustaining equipment. One study found that there are 900 people in the affected area with chronic medical problems. Of those, 590 rely on electrical equipment for thier well being.

SDG&E’s outage plan

PG&E to pay $14.8 million for Pendola fire

In October, 1999, a 170-foot rotting Ponderosa pine tree fell onto a Pacific Gas and Electric power line near Camptonville, California. The power line ignited the tree and the fire spread to private property and the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests, ultimately burning 11,725 acres. The fire cost $4 million to suppress.

The government contended that PG&E should have removed the hazardous tree.

The $14.8 million from the settlement will go towards the suppression costs and for restoration projects on the national forests. 

SDG&E expects to implement power shut-off plan during high fire danger

San Diego Gas and Electric Company said yesterday they will implement their preemptive power shut-off plan during periods of high fire danger in San Diego County. They made their announcement after the California Public Utilities Commission said they would not be able to rule on SDG&E’s plan before the Santa Ana wind season starts in September.

SDG&E proposed their plan in October after investigators blamed their power lines for starting three massive wildfires in 2007. If implemented, electricity for up to 150,000 people could be shut off.

According to their plan, in order to shut off electricty all of the following criteria would have to be met :

  • a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service;
  • moisture at or below 10 percent in twigs and 75 percent or less in live plants;
  • relative humidity at or below 20 percent; and
  • sustained winds over 29 mph, or gusts above 47 mph accompanied by sustained winds over 24 mph.

After having worked as a wildland firefighter in San Diego County for 16 years, I am estimating that these conditions would be met at least once or twice each year between September and November.

Firefighting agencies have not taken a stand on the proposal, but it is opposed by local government officials, water districts, schools, disability advocates, and cable and telephone companies.

Power company agrees to pay $686 million for fires

San Diego Gas and Electric, SDG&E, whose power lines started three huge fires in southern California in 2007, has agreed to pay $686 million to insurance companies that paid claims to their customers for the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

Here are some excerpts from the Union-Tribune:

The money will be paid directly from SDG&E’s own liability insurance carriers to 65 homeowners insurance companies. About 20 more insurance companies are still in negotiations with SDG&E, the utility said, and the final settlement could reach $900 million.

“SDG&E does not acknowledge any fault or liability,” [SDG&E spokesperson Stephanie Donavan]  said. The fires were caused, she said, by the extreme weather conditions that existed in late October 2007. Donovan said the company thought the settlement was prudent, in part to spare the expense of a lengthy trial.

Combined, the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires killed two people and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Rancho Santa Fe and other communities.

Two state investigations found that arcing SDG&E power lines started each fire. The investigations also blamed, in part, Cox Communications equipment for starting the Guejito fire, which is believed to have been the blaze that burned into Rancho Bernardo before merging with the Witch Creek fire.

Donovan said that as part of the settlement, SDG&E has bought the claims that the insurance companies have against Cox and said the utility will aggressively seek compensation from Cox in a lawsuit that has already been brought.

So the fires were caused by “extreme weather conditions”? Does she mean lightning? No. Strong winds exposed weaknesses in the design and maintenance of the power lines.

Wildfire news, June 24, 2009

Three firefighters injured in Texas

One firefighter was entrapped and took refuge in his fire shelter. From the Houston Chronicle:

Three firemen with the Texas Forest Service were injured Monday and Tuesday battling wildfires that starting to intensify as the Houston-area copes with a hotter and dryer summer than usual.

The firemen were hurt battling a 200-acre inferno near Huntsville in Walker County. Two suffered from heat exhaustion and one suffered minor burns before he could crawl inside his emergency aluminum fire shelter.

“This fire spread rapidly. The flames jumped from the crown of a one tree to another,” said Justice Jones, spokesman for the fire service.


The Governor of Wyoming wants more USFS dollars

Here is an excerpt from the Little Chicago Review.

Cheyenne – Wyoming has been left out in the cold by the U.S. Forest Service as that agency allocated federal economic stimulus dollars to western states for wildland fire mitigation projects, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said today in a sharply worded letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The Governor criticized the agency for allocating millions in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 based on
inaccurate data and a model that he said the Forest Service is unwilling to disclose to the states.

“I have had the opportunity to review the list of projects that were selected to get wildland fire funding and this list paints an interesting but somewhat disturbing picture regarding Forest Service priorities,” he said, “even when glossed with a thick shellac of
rhetoric tied to unemployment numbers and other ‘economic stimulus’ veneers.”

The Governor wants an additional $26.5 million for fire mitigation, biomass development, capital construction, and fuels reduction.

Popular Science on firefighting tech

An article in Popular Science examines the use of:

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles,
  • A network of sensors, 1 per acre, to monitor weather, which Wildfire Today told you about on September 22, 2008; and
  • The Wildland Fire Decision Support System.


San Diego County Supervisors oppose SDG&E pre-emptive power shutoff scheme

The latest in San Diego Gas and Electric’s plan to shut off the power to large sections of San Diego County during periods of high fire danger is that the county Board of Supervisors voted four to zero to oppose the plan. Wildfire Today has covered this issue extensively.