Shut-off plan ups fire risk, says district

Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) directors approved an emergency resolution opposing San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E) emergency power shut-off plan.

“Yesterday (July 27, 2009) the San Diego City Council voted for approval of a proposal by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to implement an emergency power shut-off plan,” attorney Sophie Akins with Best Best & Krieger, the district’s legal counsel, told the RWMD Board at its July 28 meeting. “We are asking the board tonight to pass a resolution opposing this plan.”

According to the proposed shut-off plan, when five specific conditions exist in high fire-risk areas, SDG&E will shut off power. The potential, those opposed to the plan say, is for 148,500 people in Ramona and the backcountry to be without electricity.

According to information packets provided by SDG&E, the Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan is part of the company’s Community Fire Safety Program and is designed to eliminate a potential ignition source during extreme weather conditions when fire risks are high. The plan is being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

San Diego County Board of Supervisors opposed the plan on June 23 because of the significant health and safety risks the supervisors said the plan would create. SDG&E’s shut-off plan includes the area within RMWD’s boundaries, and it encompasses areas as far north as Oak Grove, south past Potrero, east beyond Ranchita, west past Valley Center and all areas in between.

The resolution presented to the RMWD Board states that firefighters rely on the district to pump as much water as possible into RMWD tanks and reservoirs to ensure a continuous water supply and maintain strong water pressure to allow a quick refill of firefighter water tenders. This cannot be done without power.

The San Diego City Council and SDG&E have not taken into consideration that without electricity water cannot be pumped, Akins said.

“Imagine evacuating Ramona with no power for traffic lights, no fuel pumps available, no household lights or functioning garage door openers, and no cell phone towers,” said Akins.

Cordless phones will not work to notify residents to evacuate in the event of an actual emergency.

Advanced warning has been promised by SDG&E. According to its information packet, the utility will “Notify you two to six hours in advance of activating an emergency power shut-off.”

The county’s Reverse 9-1-1 system will not be utilized for the notification, RMWD’s resolution states. SDG&E states that in one hour, the company can notify 20,000 customers prior to shut-off, utilizing the proposed plan.

CalFire does not support SDG&E’s plan and has made it clear that CalFire was not involved in crafting any of the components of the shut-off plan. A July 9, 2008, CalFire report indicates that the Witch Fire in 2007 was caused by arcing power lines and the Rice Fire was caused by a sycamore tree branch falling on SDG&E conductors and poles. The PUC alleges that the Rice Fire started because of SDG&E’s failure to maintain the brush and vegetation around conductors and poles in accordance with PUC General Orders, said Akins.

In December 2008, SDG&E submitted an application to CPUC proposing a change to the General Order under which SDG&E would not be subject to liability for shutting off power at SDG&E’s discretion. According to the RMWD resolution, SDG&E has not studied whether its shut-off plan increases the risk of fire from other sources, such as backup generators, candles or barbecues.

The board addressed the issue that individuals who purchase generators will have to have gas containers on site to keep the generators operational, thus posing an additional fire hazard on the property.

Most generators store enough fuel for 8 to 24 hours of operation. Board members questioned what would happen on the second or third day of a shut-off when individuals are unable to refuel their generators.

Under the emergency power shut-off plan, outages could last from 12 to 72 hours. According to Akins, before power is switched back on, SDGE’s plan calls for sending out teams to inspect every line.

If the power were shut off, RMWD’s critical pump stations would require large generators that must be hauled on a flatbed truck.

In light of SDG&E’s insistence to shut off power, RMWD General Manager Ralph McIntosh has reserved three generators to be brought to Ramona by Sept. 1, 2009.

“These are the last three generators we could get from San Diego County,” McIntosh said.

If the PUC does not grant SDG&E’s proposed plan, the generators will be returned.

“SDG&E needs to do a better job in managing and inspecting their equipment,” said RMWD Division I Director Darrell Beck, whose home was destroyed in the Witch fire.

It was Beck’s suggestion that SDG&E replace existing poles, and put spreaders on the lines to keep them from coming together.

“SDG&E also needs to keep the areas clean where the lines cross,” Beck said.

According to the RMWD resolution, cutting power at a time when catastrophic fires from all sources is highest inhibits effective notification and evacuation of residents. The resolution further states that had SDG&E’s plan been in place in 2007, the town of Ramona would have been required to evacuate without functioning fuel pumps, water pumps, lights, traffic signals or communications.

The RMWD Board opposes SDG&E’s shut-off plan because, the resolution states, it “increases the risk of fire spreading out of control to catastrophic proportions, and impeding timely and effective communications when water and communications are critical.”

RMWD directors authorized McIntosh to file a motion with the PUC administrative law judge in the proceeding that official notice of this resolution be taken.

   
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