San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) recently issued notices that it will be shutting off power in rural areas of San Diego County that are considered high risk areas for wildfires during extreme weather conditions, such as those caused by Santa Ana winds, but the plan was put on hold due to objections and potential legal action from water districts in the affected areas.
The proposed shutoff would impact about 45,000 customers living in the high risk areas, including Fallbrook, Rainbow, De Luz, Palomar Mountain, Pala, Warner Springs, Julian, Pauma Valley, the hills between Ramona and Poway, Gopher Canyon, Mount Laguna and back country along and south of Interstate 8.
SDG&E said the precaution is in response to multiple tragedies last October in which arcing power lines were blamed for igniting the Rice Canyon, Witch Creek and Guejito fires.
Quick to object to SDG&E’s plan were Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD) and Rainbow Municipal Water District (RMWD) as well as other water districts in the impacted areas.
Officials from these utility companies said water sources in these areas would be affected, causing problems for residents and firefighters if a fire started and the power was shut off.
FPUD General Manager Keith Lewinger said water agencies would be impacted if SDG&E cut power, as the district does not have enough emergency generators to run all the electric water pumps necessary to keep the reservoir full, especially in times where there is a large demand of water, such as when there is a fire.
Lewinger believes SDG&E should provide emergency generators to run the water pumps as needed if the power is cut off, especially if there is a fire in the area.
Lewinger also said sewer problems could arise in certain parts of De Luz if the power were cut off.
RMWD General Manager Dave Seymour said the water district has not had a chance to evaluate what the effect would be on the region, but does have mutual aid agreements that would allow the district to be able to run its water stations for up to a week before water would run out.
Seymour went on to say that SDG&E’s short notice was “irresponsible” since it did not allow time for water districts to work with the utility company in order to be able to figure out what the potential problems would be and time to find solutions to them.
In order to allow more time to prepare for a power shutoff, the Ramona and Valley Center water districts filed a joint lawsuit on October 10 to block the shutoff plan, forcing SDG&E to suspend their power shortage plan until the districts could voice their concerns to the utility company.
SDG&E met with the operating heads of agencies on October 14 to address concerns, problems and needs the shutoff plan causes, as well as to work with the agencies to develop a safety plan that would allow the water districts to run normally during a power cutoff.
“Both sides are communicating,” Seymour said, “but it was not just the water districts that voiced their opinions. SDG&E got a lot of response from residents and commercial customers voicing their concerns.”
The meeting held does not begin to pacify all concerns. One case in point is the fact that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) announced that power to traffic signals at intersections may be affected if SDG&E pulls the plug.
CHP Officer Steven Velasco said intersection lights have a battery backup, but since a large area would be affected, flashing red lights in all directions, indicating a power outage, may not work at all.
Additionally, officers would not be sent out to direct traffic as whole area grids would be affected and there would not be enough officers to direct traffic and perform their usual duties.
According to the SDG&E emergency plan, the power would be shut off if the following five conditions are present:
• The National Weather Service issues a Red Flag Warning, which indicates that conditions make it likely for wildfires
• Winds in the area are sustained and greater than 35 mph or the wind gusts are greater than 55 mph
• The relative humidity is less than 20 percent
• The moisture level in “non-living” materials such as sticks, twigs and leaves is less than six percent
• The moisture level in “living” plants and bushes is less than or equal to 75 percent
All five of these conditions must be met before the shut down procedures begin. The utility company believes that this would happen “as infrequently as one time or less per year” and the amount of people to be affected at one time would be between “1,000 to 10,000 customers.”
SDG&E has not announced a revised time line of when the plan will be put into effect, but is encouraging residents to prepare a safety plan in case of a power shutoff and to have a generator in place along with a fire plan.
If residents are low-income and in need of a generator, or have a dependency on electronic medical equipment, they can call (800) 411-SDGE for assistance.
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