San Diego power company shares helitanker

sunbird aircrane
SDG&E’s new Sunbird Air-crane helicopter, scooping water at Lake Hodges. SDG&E photo.

In June Wildfire Today told you that San Diego Gas and Electric had ordered a Sikorsky S-64F Air-crane helitanker, primarily to install electrical transmission towers on a new power line they are building, but that it would be shared with the local fire agencies if needed for fire suppression. SDG&E has taken delivery of the ship, now designated as helitanker 729 when fighting fire, or “Sunbird” when working on the powerline.

sunbird aircrane
SDG&E photo

Here is an excerpt from a press release from SDG&E:

This firefighting-capable helicopter will be available to assist in fighting wildfires in the region through two cooperative agreements that will establish protocols for its use during critical fire emergencies. The agreements are similar to the ones prepared last fire season with SDG&E’s leased air crane. The first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between SDG&E and the City of San Diego establishes that the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department will be the lead agency that would dispatch the Sun Bird to a wildfire upon request, beginning September 1 or sooner if needed.

“The sheer capacity of water this air tanker is capable of dropping will be paramount to our ability to suppress a wildfire early in the game,” said Chief Javier Mainar, of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. “Like last fire season with the leased air crane, we feel more prepared for what Mother Nature may send our way.”

The second MOU between SDG&E and the County of San Diego establishes a $300,000 operating budget for fire season, with SDG&E covering the cost to operate the helicopter during the first two hours of any new fire and the County of San Diego covering the second two hours. The pilots and mechanics, which will be provided by Erickson Air-Crane, are trained to maneuver this type of helicopter for both Sunrise construction and precision water dropping to target wild-land fires. Because of this agreement, San Diego County will not have to lease a helicopter to be on stand-by during fire season.

San Diego power company installs nearly 100 weather stations

We have ranted about San Diego Gas and Electric a number of times for starting numerous wildfires, including the disastrous Witch, Rice, and Guejito fires in eastern San Diego County in 2007. But we have to give them credit for doing two things recently that benefit the wildland fire community.

The first was the purchase of a $30 million Erickson Air-Crane S64F Helitanker that should be delivered later this month. The company has agreed to share it with San Diego County on wildfires for a reasonable cost, but it will be used primarily for constructing and maintaining power lines.

The second thing they have done is to install a boatload of weather stations in the backcountry areas of San Diego County, including Ramona, Alpine, El Cajon, Valley Center and Fallbrook. So far they have have installed 94, yes 94, weather stations on power poles in wind-prone areas. The solar-powered stations contain sensors and data loggers made by RM Young and Campbell Scientific, respectively, and monitor wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and relative humidity.

SDG&E intends to use the data from the stations to determine where it should stage repair crews and whether or not it should shut off power to residents during periods of strong winds.

The meteorologists in the local National Weather Service office are pretty excited about this massive new source of weather conditions. SDG&E has plans to make the data available to the public through a “dashboard”.

San Diego power company to purchase Air-Crane and share with County

San Diego Gas and Electric, the target of criticism and law suits for starting fires, is purchasing a large Type 1 helicopter that it will share with San Diego County for suppressing them. SDG&E has ordered a new Erickson Air-Crane S64F Helitanker at a cost of $30 million, and expects it to be delivered in late August after it is built in Oregon.

The power company has reached an agreement with the County which calls for each organization to put $150,000 into an account this year that could be used for up to 40 hours of wildland firefighting.  If the ship is needed for a fire, it will be dispatched through the San Diego City Fire-Rescue Department. Last year SDG&E leased an Air-Crane, which like the new one on order, was primarily used for maintaining their power lines.

Currently the City and the County of San Diego each have two helicopters that can be used for firefighting. In addition, I believe the U.S. Forest Service has another one nearby at Ramona.

More information.

San Diego County fire chiefs honor power shut-off plan

The San Diego county Fire Chiefs Association gave an award last week to San Diego Gas and Electric. Their Maltese Cross was given to the company’s President, Michael Niggli and his predecessor Debra Reed, for their spirit of fire protection.

The award was given, at least in part, for SDG&E’s proposal to shut off the electricity to large areas of the county (see map below) when the fire danger was high. Their plan was assailed by many residents and applauded by some firefighters, but it was rejected by the Public Utilities Commission.

In addition to trying to prevent fires (and save money for the company) SDG&E has a long history of starting fires. For a recent example, as we reported on April 23:

San Diego Gas and Electric Company has agreed to pay the state of California $14.8 million over three fires in 2007 that were caused by their power lines. Investigators determined that shoddy maintenance of the lines led to arcing, which started the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires that burned through the communities of Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, and Rancho Santa Fe in October and November of 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations.

The Commission accused SDG&E of obstructing their investigation of the cause of the fires. According to the San Diego Union, in the settlement the company admitted that it didn’t give investigators the information they asked for and didn’t let its workers talk to the investigators, as required by law.

Areas in which power would have been shut off.

San Diego power company agrees to pay $14.8 million for wildfires

San Diego Gas and Electric Company has agreed to pay the state of California $14.8 million over three fires in 2007 that were caused by their power lines. Investigators determined that shoddy maintenance of the lines led to arcing, which started the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires that burned through the communities of Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, and Rancho Santa Fe in October and November of 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved the settlement on Thursday, as well as a $2 million settlement with Cox Communications. Investigators say one of Cox’s cables blew into a power line, starting the Guejito fire.  Both companies say they are not at fault for the fires, but just wanted to get the charges out of the way.

The Commission accused SDG&E of obstructing their investigation of the cause of the fires. According to the San Diego Union, in the settlement the company admitted that it didn’t give investigators the information they asked for and didn’t let its workers talk to the investigators, as required by law.

San Diego power company pays $14M to state for starting huge fires in 2007

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has agreed to a settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission to pay $14.3 million for starting the Witch, Rice, and Guejito fires in eastern San Diego County in 2007. Cox Communications agreed to pay $2 million without admitting they started the Guejito fire.

Here is an excerpt from a report in the San Diego Union Tribune.

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San Diego Gas & Electric and Cox Communications agreed Friday to pay $17 million to settle claims by state investigators that their shoddy maintenance led to three huge North County wildfires two years ago. SDG&E also apologized for obstructing investigators looking into the cause of the fires.

The companies did not admit fault for setting the fires, but said they would take steps to better maintain their lines and equipment. The settlement comes more than a year after investigators with the Public Utilities Commission concluded that power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

The fires burned more than 1,300 homes, killed two people and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands.

SDG&E agreed to pay $14.3 million to the state’s general fund and reimburse the PUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division up to $400,000 for a computer system designed to help investigate utility safety hazard incidents. The money will come out of SDG&Es profits, not from ratepayers.

As for the obstruction allegation, the company said it knows it has an “obligation and duty to respond promptly” when investigators need information and access to its workers. “SDG&E admits that its efforts fell short of meeting this obligation and duty in connection with the CPSD’s investigations into the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires and apologizes for permitting this to happen. SDG&E will conduct additional training in this area,” the company said in the settlement.

It also said it failed to file timely reports on the fires. In a statement, SDG&E President Debra Reed said the company wants to move on.

“We are settling this matter to put the issue behind us and avoid the costs and risks of further litigation,” she said.  “As part of this settlement, we maintain that our system met all compliance and safety requirements, but we fell short of meeting our obligations with respect to three follow-up reports,” she said. She did not mention the apology.

Cox, meanwhile, agreed to pay $2 million to the general fund, without admitting that it caused the Guejito fire. Investigators said a Cox lashing wire came loose in high winds and caused arcing when it came in contact with an SDG&E power line.

“We believe that our line was properly maintained and intact prior to the Santa Ana winds in 2007, and did not cause the Guejito fire,” Cox said in a statement. “The CPUC has a long history of handling disputes through agreements, and we entered into this agreement in an effort to move forward and stay focused on the business of serving our customers and our community.”

The settlement does not affect the ongoing litigation in San Diego Superior Court in which hundreds of fire victims as well as governmental agencies are seeking damages from SDG&E. Earlier this year, SDG&E settled many claims, paying out more than $740 million to dozens of insurance companies seeking partial reimbursement for money they had already paid to clients.

However individual fire victims have yet to be compensated for losses beyond whatever insurance they may have had, and numerous governmental agencies such as CalFire and the city and county of San Diego are still trying to recover millions of dollars in fire fighting costs and other damages.

SDG&E has asked the PUC for permission to raise rates to pay for damages beyond what its insurance covers, and for higher insurance costs because of the fires. Lawyers involved in the case say it could still be years before the litigation ends.

SDG&E has not admitted responsibility for the fires. At some point a judge will have to schedule a trial or trials to determine whether SDG&E is liable.