By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
A fire-fighting plan by a San Diego utility, which recently agreed to pay more than $740 million to insurers to settle fire-related losses, has been scuttled.
By a 4-1 vote, the California Public Utility Commission denied a plan by the San Diego Gas & Electric Company, which would shut off power in 17 areas of San Diego county during periods of low humidity and when sustained winds reached 35 mph or reach gusts of 55 mph accompanied by sustained 30 mph winds.
Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, dismissed the utility's plan as a "diversion" from the real issue: infrastructure upgrades.
"The shut-off plan has always been a diversion from the real problem; for years, SDG&E has failed to enact known safety measures that would prevent wildfire caused by its infrastructure," said Jacob, as part of a written statement issued following the decision.
Jacob was among those opposing the utility company's plan. The commission voted down the utility's plan Sept. 10.
Stephanie Donovan, a spokeswoman for the utility, said there were no plans to rekindle initiatives to shut off power. "There really are at this point no next steps," she said.
The utility is taking steps to harden its power lines, including replacing wooden poles with steel, using heavier wire conductors and increasing the space between conductors.
In his review of the utility company's proposal, Timothy Kenney, a staff administrative law judge for the CPUC, found that the utility's plan to shut off power created more problems than it solved. Shutting off power, he wrote, could stall evacuation measures that might help save lives.
"The October 2007 firestorm demonstrates that concerns about evacuating during a power shut-off event are warranted," wrote Kenney, in a 63-page finding issued in August.
Kenney's review also determined that residents in areas without power would be tempted to use other energy sources, like generators, barbecues and hibachis, if the utility shut off power. Resorting to barbecues and hibachis represents a fire threat even greater than power lines, Kenney reasoned.
In testimony before the utility commission, SDG&E officials said that, had they been authorized to shut off power, the October 2007 Guejito and Witch fires, which together burned more than 197,990 acres, might have been prevented.
Those fires are still under investigation but are believed to have been started by sparks from an SDG&E power line that was blown into a conductor by Southern California's Santa Ana winds.
In testimony before the CPUC on June 5, John Hotta, a construction supervisor with SDG&E, said that, based on his personal observations on the day of the fire, winds at the fire's point of origin on Oct. 21, 2007, were blowing in excess of 70 mph.
Opponents of the plan to shut off power included AT&T, the San Diego School District and the region's water districts. They argued the plan would sever communications equipment links, preventing residents from using their land lines or cell phones to call in the location of fires or to report injuries.
That loss of communication could also extend to first responders, who might not be able to talk to each other or to residents, impeding evacuations, said AT&T and other plan opponents.
That potential loss of communication figured heavily in Kenney's decision, which in effect said keeping power on to help residents evacuate outweighed the importance of shutting off power as a strategy for fighting fires.
"On October 21, 2007, the Witch Fire started at 12:35 p.m. near the community of Ramona. If the power shut-off had been in effect, SDG&E would have shut off power to Ramona at 8:35 p.m. Sixteen minutes later, at 9:14 p.m., residents of Ramona received reverse 911 calls to evacuate. Fortunately, power was on and residents were able to receive reverse 911 calls and to evacuate at night with the aid of lights in their homes and on the streets," Kenney wrote.
There are 65 public elementary, middle and high schools in the proposed shut off areas and school officials feared the loss of funding from the state if classes had to be cancelled due to blackouts.
The water districts said that they would not be able to use 39 pump stations that are in the proposed shut-off areas, pumping stations that don't have backup generators.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, by acreage burned, the Guejito and Witch fires combined to create the fourth largest wildfire in California's recorded history.
Those fires are believed to have caused two deaths and burned 1,650 structures.
September 21, 2009
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