Electrical company contractors agree to pay $370 million for San Diego County fires

Two companies that performed work for San Diego Gas and Electric agreed to pay a total of $370 million for their roles in the 2007 Witch Creek and Guejito fires in San Diego County. Davey Tree Expert Company was a contractor doing hazard reduction for SDG&E, trimming trees near power lines. A fallen sycamore branch is believed to have started the Guejito fire near Fallbrook, Californina.

PAR Electrical replaced and modified a power pole that has been linked to the ignition of the 198,000-acre Witch Creek fire which started near Santa Ysabel during 100 mph Santa Ana winds. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations.

The $370 will be paid to SDG&E which has already agreed to pay $686 million to insurance companies that paid claims to their customers for the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires. The company also agreed in a 2010 settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission to pay the state of California $14.8 million for the three fires. 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 nor did it let its workers talk to the investigators, as required by law.

Power company stages contract firefighters during wind event

During a red flag warning last week for predicted strong winds in southern California, San Diego Gas and Electric staged contract wildland firefighters in remote areas of San Diego County to be able to respond quickly if a power line failure caused a fire. Using an automatic system, SDG&E called 11,500 residents in the eastern parts of the county to warn them that the utility could turn off their power if they determined that the fire danger reached a predetermined threshold. The utility has recently installed 130 weather stations in their service area that transmit data via a cell phone network to their headquarters.

SDG&E weather stations
SDG&E weather stations. Credit: SDG&E

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Ramona Sentinel:

…“We used to have only one weather station per circuit, and now some circuits have as many as five, so we can try to pinpoint the potential impact of weather on our system,” [SDG&E spokesman Stephanie] Donovan said. “We also began staging crews in wind-prone areas to hasten response time.”

A typical crew is four SDG&E troubleshooters and two or three firefighters, who are part of a contract wildfire strike team hired by the utility.

“SDG&E had about 90 people staged in the areas where the highest winds were forecast,” Donovan said. “This included our distribution crews, contract firefighters, transmission construction and maintenance crews, and even Telecomm personnel.”

The staging of observers turned out to be “invaluable,” she said.

“Specifically, an electric troubleshooter out of SDG&E’s construction and operations center in Escondido followed fire trucks onto Tribal Road within the Rincon Reservation to find poles and wire down with a half-acre fire. It was determined the line was a 2.4 kilovolt customer-owned equipment,” Donovan said.

“Another troubleshooter patrolling a line came across a leaning pole with secondary wire in the Rincon area, and was able to call it in and get it fixed. Finally, one of SDG&E’s weather stations in the Santa Ysabel area stopped updating in the middle of the event, so one of the stand-by crews was sent to troubleshoot the issue and soon had the weather station back on line communicating via cellular modem.”

More information:

San Diego power company puts data from 101 weather stations online

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has installed at least 101 weather stations in their service area in San Diego, Orange, and Riverside counties in southern California. The primary purpose of the stations is to monitor wind speeds so that they can make decisions about when to turn off the power if they think their lines would be in danger of arcing or falling during wind events. The company is beginning to be a little gun shy since their lines have started numerous wildfires, including the 175,000-acre Laguna fire in 1970 and the disastrous Witch, Rice, and Guejito fires in 2007.

Wildfire Today covered this weather station story in August when the company had 94 of them up and running, but now the data from 101 stations is available in near real time on the internet.

Accessing and viewing the data is not very user friendly, but we applaud SDG&E for putting it online, something they did not have to do. Looking at a list of 100+ stations, with names you may not be familiar with, is not the ideal internet user experience, but if you live in the area you will probably recognize the locations near you. It would be great if they had one map that had an icon for each station, and mousing-over or clicking on the icon would bring up the weather data.

There is no single map that shows all of the stations, but if you go to the page with the 101 station list and click on the down arrow below “Regions”, choose an area, then click “Go” to the right, you will see a map of that area which displays the wind speed and direction for those few stations. Or you can select an area under “Communities” and see a text list of the stations in that area along with the wind speed, direction, temperature, and relative humidity.

Clicking on the name of a station brings up a page like this:

SDGE weather station data

Another view of the text data from 22 of the stations can be found here. It includes living and dead fuel moisture information in addition to wind speed, RH, and Red Flag Warnings.

In case SDG&E does implement their very controversial plan to turn off the power during periods of high fire danger, they have provided a web page for the affected residents that will show estimates of when the power will be restored. One of the problems with this is, if a resident has no power, they will most likely have difficulty accessing the internet.

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.