Public airs concern at PUC fire hearing

About 140 people turned out for a state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing in Kearney Mesa Oct. 14 to air their concerns about SDG&E operations and equipment maintenance, in light of the 2007 wildfires.

The public meeting was set up after a PUC staff report last month found the utility company responsible for the Witch, Rice and Guejito Fires and recommended further investigation.

Among the hot topics was SDG&E’s recently announced plan to shut off power to areas of the county, including parts of Ramona, during red flag warnings by emergency response agencies. That plan has since been put on hold due to public opposition.

“I think the answer is to focus on maintenance of equipment and prevention and not to treat backcountry residents to an interruptible power source as though they are a Third World country,” Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth told the commission.

The chairwoman of the Boulevard Planning Group, Donna Tisdale, put it more bluntly: “SDG&E has given the backcountry the royal flip off and we don’t appreciate it. Our well pumps will be shut off if power is shut off. We who live in the backcountry need to look at other options.”

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she had asked SDG&E to get the buy-in from her constituents first before advancing the power outage concept.

“My constituents feel blindsided by the plan,” she said.

The commission also heard from County Superintendent of Schools Randolph Ward.

“Schools cannot support the shutdown of power,” he said. “We want to work together for a contingency plan.”

The president of Cox Communications, Bill Geppard, told the PUC that the company wants to make sure that their critical services are still made available to residents during disasters. Another speaker concurred that people rely on radio, TV and the Internet to get information during a fire.

State Sen. Christine Kehoe was among about 15 people who spoke of the general concerns regarding SDG&E’s maintenance, equipment and operations regarding power lines in high fire-risk zones.

“There are many troubling questions that have been raised,” she told commissioners. “We’ve been patiently awaiting your investigation.”

Jacob suggested that the PUC should require SDG&E to place spacers between power lines and to underground utilities in high fire risk areas. She said the commission should not allow SDG&E’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink to go forward, given what the community endured during wildfires in 2003 and 2007. The project would transport high voltage electricity across 150 miles from Imperial County to San Diego, through the backcountry, including the Tulloch property where the Witch Fire began.

Commissioner Dian Grueneich told Jacob that the project was not the issue at the  meeting, so none of what she had said about it would become part of the record for any  decisions on it. Jacob said she raised the issue because it is related to the potential for fires.

Dianne Conklin and Joseph Mitchell, Ph.D., husband and wife, of the Mussey Grade Alliance in Ramona, also spoke. The two have been intervenors in the Sunrise issue since surviving the Cedar Fire.

Conklin criticized the PUC and SDG&E for the lack of rule making, policy change or full investigation since last year’s fires. She said the utility company should not be allowed to determine what they will do. Conklin asked the PUC to undertake a full investigation, hearing all stakeholders, so the commission can get scientific results about wind speed, power lines and wildfires.

Jeff Wood, who lives next to the Tulloch ranch where the Witch Fire began, told commissioners that, “If I had started this fire, I’d be in jail.” Wood told the Sentinel that he and his family lost 200 oak trees, five structures and two miles of fence line in the fire.

The flip side of the liability issue was presented by SDG&E spokesman Dave Geier.

“We do support the PUC goal to learn more about the causes of the 2007 fires,” he said. “Officials have said that 2007 was an unprecedented event.”

He said that Southern California is getting hotter and drier and that, “We must take proactive measures. We always build our system to general orders but we’re going beyond that with our emergency plan.”

SDG&E was found in violation of the PUC’s general orders in the staff report.

Geppard said that Cox’s lashing wire broke as a result of interacting with SDG&E equipment and that there was no evidence that the company’s equipment was damaged prior to the fire.

“The CPSD report reached premature conclusions,” he said.

The report, written by members of the Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the PUC, has not yet gone before the full commission. A date has yet to be set for that hearing, Andy Kotch, as PUC spokesman, said.

The meeting ran calmly and smoothly and finished within the allotted two hours. Commissioners set the scene at the beginning by telling the audience that this was not going to be an adversarial meeting. Administrative law judge for the PUC, Victoria Kolakowski, told people that there was nothing pending before the PUC that night.

“No decisions will be made,” she said.

   
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