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.

SDG&E leases Erickson Air-Crane helicopter

On September 9 Wildfire Today reported on San Diego Gas and Electric’s plans to lease a large helicopter that would be available to fight wildfires. They now have in place an Erickson Air-Crane S-64E Type 1 helicopter that can be ordered through the San Diego Fire Department. The first two hours will be free, paid by SDG&E, with any additional time costing $7,500 an hour. When the helicopter is not fighting fires, it will be used to build a new power line.Photo: Erickson Air-Crane

The helicopter is being leased through and operated by Erickson Air-Crane and will be stationed at Brown Field in Otay Mesa.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an article that explores the relationship between SDG&E and the San Diego City Council, and how the Council supported the power company’s plan to shut off the electricity to large sections of the county during periods of high fire danger. 

Television special about Air-Cranes

How did we miss this? From Erickson Air-Crane’s web site:

The first ever one-hour documentary devoted exclusively to Erickson Air-Crane and our S-64 has premiered worldwide on the National Geographic Channel in the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, Iceland, Lithuania, and most recently in the United States on Thursday, September 17th and 24th under the title: “Aircrane: Extreme Helicopter” The program is currently scheduled to repeat through the rest of the year. The nationwide premiere of program on National Geographic Canada is scheduled for October 16th at 9 p.m. P.S.T. 

I was unable to find any future broadcast times for the program on the NGC’s web site. If anyone has information about this, let us know.