SDG&E works on reducing fire danger

This is one in a continuing series about improving fire safety in the region.

By Rose Marie Scott-Blair

Although this has been a thankfully quiet year for wildfires so far, San Diego Gas & Electric is continuing to take steps to improve fire safety, utility officials told about 40 of its critics and supporters at the latest meeting of the SDG&E stakeholders.

The group has been meeting since October 2009 and has come up with at least 100 ideas for reducing fire dangers, and many of these ideas are already being implemented, said SDG&E spokesman Stephanie Donovan.

The stakeholders include representatives of SDG&E, fire officials, water districts including the Ramona Municipal Water District, schools, the county, telecommunication groups and spokesmen for the disabled and backcountry residents, such as Diane Conklin and Joseph Mitchell of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona.

The results of their meetings, guided by federal mediator Jan Sunoo, have been organized into a final report, but “how and when it will be presented is still up in the air,” Donovan said.

“Since County Supervisor Diane Jacob has been actively working with the stakeholders, one suggestion is that the report be first presented to the County Board of Supervisors,” Donovan said. “And we also need to address the issue of how to formally respond to the California Public Utilities Commission.”

In October 2009, the PUC rejected SDG&E’s plan to shut off power in high-risk fire conditions, and it ordered the utility to meet with those who could be affected and develop a comprehensive fire prevention program.

Although the first phase of this collaboration is now ended, it was agreed that the meetings will continue on a quarterly basis with a smaller group, of maybe eight representatives, Donovan said. But she stressed that all current stakeholders will be welcome to attend, if they so desire.

“This time we will focus not only on fire safety, but the broader issue of emergency preparedness for any other natural disaster, such as earthquakes or anything that might cause a power outage,” she said. “People need to understand how to handle an outage, regardless of the cause. It could be something as simple as a car running into a power pole.”

The last stakeholder meeting also included a status report on steps taken by SDG&E since the 2007 fires and its plans for 2011.

For example, since 2007, 1,100 wood power poles have been replaced with steel ones, and 600 more will be done this year, Donovan said, noting that the steel poles are not “shiny gray, but are treated with a special paint which makes them look like wood.”

The conversion from wood to steel poles is under way now in Santa Ysabel, Pala and Rancho Bernardo and will be done later this year in Rincon/Valley Center, Miguel/Otay, Del Dios/Lake Hodges and Dehesa.

Three areas are also slated for putting transmission or distribution lines underground: Valley Center, Jewell Valley east of Mountain Empire and Pine Hills near Wynola and Julian.

“People ask why we don’t underground more in the backcountry, but it’s not that easy,” Donovan said. “There are other issues, like rough terrain and lots of line, so we look at it from a strategic standpoint—where can we get the biggest bang for the buck.”

In a joint program with the City of San Diego and South Orange County, SDG&E now collects funds via customer bills for undergrounding lines, but it is for aesthetic improvements only, such as on view corridors or highly traveled roadways, not fire safety.

“We will be asking the PUC to change that and provide money to underground for fire safety,” Donovan said.

SDG&E has also been adding IntelliRupter switches, which give greater control of power in smaller areas. More than 100 were installed in 2009, 40 in 2010 and 12 more will be done this year, for a total of 152.

SDG&E added 93 weather stations in 2010 so people could track wind and humidity conditions in their own community on the utility’s website (under outages) or on a special website for PDAs, such as like smartphones. Another 32 stations will be added this year for a total of 125.

“We are doing everything we can,” Donovan said, “to make the system as robust as possible and prevent fires.”



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