Wildfire news, October 15, 2008

California: Power company criticized for fire danger related power shut-off plan

San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier that they planned to shut off power to large areas of San Diego County during periods of strong winds and high fire danger. It turns out that not everyone is crazy about the concept. From CBS8:

SDG&E is under fire for its proposal to shut off power during high winds in wildfire-prone areas.

At a meeting Tuesday night in front of the State Public Utility Commission, San Diegans voiced their concerns about the idea.

Also present at the meeting, county officials asked the commission for a full investigation into the matter.

“To convince the commission to do the right thing and hold SDG&E’s feet to the fire to do what they should’ve done years ago, changing the poles from wood to steel, more spacing between the lines and better tree-trimming vegetation management,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

A SDG&E representative at the meeting said the company is committed to doing whatever is possible to make its system safer.

HERE is a link to a video news report on the subject.

Night flying helicopters in San Diego County

Some politicians in the San Diego area continue to be obsessed with night flying firefighting helicopters. Some of them still think that a few water drops when the 2003 Cedar fire began as the sun was setting could have prevented it from growing to 270,000 acres. The fact is, the strong Santa Ana winds at the time would have made any helicopter drops ineffective.

Here is an excerpt from a story in the North County Times:

Five years after local officials were infuriated by a decision to ground aircraft at sunset rather than attack California’s largest wildfire in its infancy, the region is moving —- albeit slowly —- to battle blazes from the air after dark.

State fire officials said helicopters did not fly at night during this week’s San Diego County wildfires, largely because pilots were able to knock down flames with water and fire retardant during the day.

But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has opened the door to making drops at night over the backcountry areas it is responsible for protecting, including 1 million acres in San Diego County.

And the state agency gave the city of San Diego the green light in September to fly its two twin-engine firefighting helicopters over those areas, in the event another inferno like those of 2003 and 2007 breaks out.

“CalFire has agreed to allow night flying in state responsibility areas if they determine that the equipment is safe,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the backcountry, including Ramona. “This is a historic change in policy.”

While it is disappointing the state did not give a green light to the county because it does not consider its helicopters to be safe, Jacob said a future aircraft purchase, possibly with money from a November ballot measure, could put the county in the night firefighting business.

For now, said sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust, county helicopters will focus on flames during daylight hours.

“During the day, we can do any mission that is asked of us,” Brust said. “But once the sun goes down, they (CalFire officials) are not comfortable flying in those helicopters.”

The county sheriff helicopters are both single-engine Bell 205 models.

Division Chief Tom Humann, aviation safety officer for CalFire in Sacramento, said the state agency doesn’t consider single-engine helicopters safe because, if the engine goes out, the pilot has no choice but to bring the aircraft down.

In daylight, a pilot has a 180-degree range of view to rely on for spotting an emergency landing spot, he said. But at night, even with night-vision goggles, a pilot’s range is 40 degrees.

“It’s kind of like looking through a couple of toilet paper rolls,” Humann said.

And a pilot is much more likely to crash at night in a single-engine aircraft, he said.

Washington, D.C wildland fire presentation

The folks at the Department of Interior in D.C. apparently think that the residents of their fair city need wildland “fire-proofing tips for homeowners”.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of the Interior will host a multi-media presentation on wildland fire prevention and containment, featuring fire-proofing tips for homeowners and first-hand experiences of Interior firefighters, on Saturday, October 18, 2008, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. in the Yates Auditorium of the Main Interior Building. The public is invited to attend this free family event, entitled “Smokejumpers, Groundpounders and Shots – Tales from Wildland Fire” at 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

San Diego preemptive power outage gets mixed reviews

The plan by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to turn off electricity to large portions of the county during periods of strong winds and low fuel moisture is being applauded by some and criticized by others. The company’s power lines have been blamed for starting numerous large fires over the last 40 years and they are probably very concerned about their liability and how it will affect their profits.

They have several options:

  1. Reduce the chances that the power lines will start fires by ensuring that wooden poles, fuses and switches are in satisfactory condition, replacing some wooden poles with metal poles, putting some lines underground, improving their tree-trimming programs along the lines, and inspecting the lines more frequently.
  2. Implement the preemptive power outage program during Santa Ana wind events. This risks receiving heavy criticism from their customers who need power for medical equipment, traffic lights, telephones, garage door openers, and water systems. Convince tens of thousands of individuals, companies, and agencies to purchase and install emergency backup power systems, or have SDG&E pay for the systems. Option #2 may result in them getting sued.
  3. Do nothing, and continue to have their power lines start fires. They will continue to get sued if they choose this option.

As far as we know, this is an unprecedented plan, turning off power to large areas because the lines may start a fire during strong winds. They may be hoping that by scaring the public about losing their power, the state legislature will exempt the company from liability.

The scare-the-public tactic works for the Bush administration. It may work for SDG&E.