Phase two of San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to prevent wildfires in the backcountry will begin on Friday when dozens of critics and backers of the original proposal, which included shutting off the power in times of high fire danger, will meet with utility officials to look for common ground.
When the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) rejected the shut-off plan last month, it ordered SDG&E to “make a good faith effort” to develop a new comprehensive fire prevention program in collaboration with those who would be affected. This process, which could be a long and contentious one, will kick off with a by-invitation-only meeting from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Four Points by Sheraton in San Diego.
SDG&E is calling the event “a stakeholder collaboration meeting to discuss fire prevention in the San Diego region.” It says that the purpose is “to ensure steady progress in reducing the fire hazard of overhead power lines” and to develop a “joint fire prevention program” that includes a cost-benefit analysis, a requirement mandated by the PUC.
Critics of the first plan contended that the benefits of shutting off power were far outweighed by the significant costs, burdens and risks that would be imposed.
The utility’s proposal to shut off power in dry, windy conditions was endorsed by some, such as the San Diego City Fire Fighters union and the San Diego City Council. It also received “conditional support” from the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.
However, the list of critics was long and varied, including water districts, schools, San Diego County Board of Supervisors, advocates for consumers and the disabled, rural activists, telephone and cable companies, ratepayer advocates at the PUC and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter.
Attorney Sophie Akins, who represents some of the shut-off opponents, including Ramona Municipal Water District, said she expects this first meeting to be “mainly procedural—establishing a framework for working with SDG&E.”
“I doubt that we will get into any substantive issues,” she said. “However, it will be interesting to see if their attitude has changed after their resounding defeat, and if they are going to be more collaborative.”
Although most of the critics are expected to attend Friday’s meeting, many of them remain skeptical, especially District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob, chair of the county board.
“If this meeting, or collaborative effort, is just a ruse to renew SDG&E’s already rejected shut-off plan, then I’m not interested,” she said.
However, she did agree to sit down with SDG&E and work together, while making it clear that “I don’t trust them.”
Ramona’s Diane Conklin of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance agrees that the utility “has not evidenced complete good faith in proceedings to date. However, that is not to say that they won’t in the future.”
Conklin will be attending the meeting with her husband, Joseph Mitchell, a physicist who has developed a framework for the type of cost-benefit analysis now being required by the PUC.
The town will also be represented by Ralph McIntosh, general manager of the Ramona water district and an opponent of the original shut-off plan.
Although he remains a bit leery, as well, McIntosh said, “We want to trust them to come up with something that is in everyone’s best interest.
“We want to work with them and we don’t need to be at odds over every issue,” he said. “If they can come up with a plan that works for everyone and doesn’t pass costs on, that’s good.
“But if they want to shift the costs to us and the residents of the backcountry, we’re not going to get anything resolved. We can’t go after our ratepayers and ask them for more money to pay for generators.”
McIntosh noted that in the 37 years he has been with the water district, there have been only two or three times when it was necessary to bring in emergency generators during fires.
“This has never been an issue,” he said. “Now they want to shut off power and create an issue.”