Weathering the blackout
By Maureen Robertson
A massive blackout that left 1.4 million San Diego Gas & Electric customers without power and affected some 5 million people from Mexico to southern Orange County and into Arizona lasted about 10 hours in Ramona—12 in other parts of the county— and sent public agencies into emergency mode.
While many Ramonans were unruffled by the outage that began about 3:40 p.m. last Thursday and continued into the early morning hours of Friday, others scrambled for batteries, ice, water and other necessities, clearing the supermarket shelves of emergency items.
“Have you been to Stater Bros.?” Mike Pierce asked as he and his wife Aron walked into Ramona High School’s Bulldog Stadium to watch the freshman football game.
“They’re out of batteries, bottled water and ice,” said Aron Pierce.
Gasoline pumps and ATM machines didn’t function, cell phone connections were intermittent due to high demand, and concern spread as residents learned how many areas were affected.
A short-circuit initiated by an operator error at Arizona Power Company’s North Gila substation northeast of Yuma, Ariz., triggered the unprecedented outage, officials reported. A 500-kilovolt line from Arizona to California tripped out of service, and the transmission outage cut the flow of imported power into the most southern portion of California, reported the California Independent System Operator Corporation (ISO), the California grid operator that has taken the lead in a joint task force investigation of the outage.
In Ramona, emergency crews were on full alert, with firefighters and paramedics responding to medical calls and minor traffic accidents, sheriff and highway patrol officers monitoring traffic and safety, and the Ramona Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) checking on seniors and other frail residents.
In the meantime, many gathered in yards for barbecues with family and friends, student athletes and their fans continued with their games, and Ramona Woman’s Club members held their Summer Soiree with the help of a generator and portable lights.
“It will be something to remember,” said Jill McKenzie, the club’s second vice president.
“Better this than a fire,” Ramona vintner Jennifer Jenkin said at the event.
“We’re enjoying the game,” said a relaxed Arlene Linton, watching the RHS freshman game in Bulldog Stadium. “We’ll worry about it when we get home.”
“You just break out the barbecue,” said Jeanne Pyeatt.
Don Scott of CERT was in San Diego buying inner tubes for bicycles and was the last customer to have a sale go through the cash register when the power went out.
“A couple minutes after that, I got a text from the chief (Cal Fire Battalion Chief Robert McLaughlin with the Ramona Fire Department) saying there was a major power outage countywide and the CERT team was on alert.”
Headquartered at the Ramona Fire Station off Dye Road, CERT members assisted older residents. One group helped a person needing oxygen and another assisted a family that needed electricity for medical equipment. With batteries operating the equipment dying, CERT lent the family a generator.
Everything went as planned at Ramona Airport, which has “a very reliable backup propane-powered generator,” said Airport Manager Bo Donovan.
“When we lose power at the airport, the backup generator goes on within 4 seconds,” said Donovan. “…If there was ever a catastrophic event and there was no way go get out but by air, you would need food, supplies, air ambulance. It’s critical that we are always functional.”
Donovan made periodic checks at the airport during the night. His last stop was at 1:45 a.m. Friday.
“On the way home, all the lights went on,” he said.
At the sheriff’s Ramona substation, all deputies were called to work 12-hour shifts and, because there is a generator at the station, it served as the department’s command center during the emergency, said sheriff’s Lt. Julie Sutton, who is in charge of the station.
“We responded to emergency calls only,” she said.
Deputies were put on looting patrol “making sure we had extra patrol out there for the businesses and residences,” she said.
The manager of Kmart called when some youngsters attempted to get inside the store. “They didn’t,” she said. “The deputies were right on it.”
Reflecting on the outage last Friday, Sutton said she had two concerns. One is people lighting firecrackers and fireworks even after a water district official announced Ramona storage tanks had enough water for about 24 hours and asked the community to conserve water until SDG&E got a backup generator to the district’s pump station in Poway.
“These people have been through how many fires already, it’s been announced about the water situation, and you’re going to light off firecrackers and fireworks—with no water?” she asked. “What if the spark hits a tree and starts a fire and there’s no water?…Think about the outcomes of your actions. Think about what could happen.”
Another concern is the number of people who were unprepared, she said. With a recent community survey showing that most Ramonans plan to stay in town rather than evacuate in the event of another wildfire, “how are they going to do it? Ask the community that.”
Sutton said the blackout served as a reality check “for all of us, not just at home, but I think the businesses also. It’s very easy to get complacent. The fires were in ‘07. I think that, while we remember them, we’ve also forgotten the little things…This was a reality check. That can be very significant.”
With Ramona water district Manager Ralph McIntosh on vacation during the blackout, David Barnum was acting general manager.
The district activated its emergency operations center in less than 10 minutes of the outage, he said.
“We had portable generators around the community…to maintain adequate water for customers and fire suppression,” he said. “…I learned the value of communication, communicating internally and with the public.”
Not knowing how long the outage would last, the district asked SDG&E to provide a backup generator for the Ramona pump station in Poway that sends water up the hill. Director Darrell Beck went on KOGO radio to ask residents to conserve water. There was water in storage tanks in Ramona, but the district wanted to exercise an abundance of caution in case the blackout lasted longer than anticipated, said Barnum.
“RMWD staff did a great job,” said Barnum. “At a moment’s notice, they put their plans on hold, called their families and made sure they were OK, and stayed.”
For San Diego County District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob, the blackout “sure makes a good argument for in-basin generation so we don’t have to rely on a large transmission line.”
“It’s all the more reason to work harder and smarter to become self-sufficient as individuals and businesses,” she said during the outage.
In Ramona on Saturday for the grand opening of the Ramona Soccer Arena in Collier Park, Jacob said, “There’s no question about it, that this really underscores our need to focus on in-basin generation, supplying our own energy needs and being independent of SDG&E.”
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