By Rose Marie Scott-Blair
When the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning last Tuesday because of anticipated high winds and dry conditions for the next day, San Diego Gas & Electric put its fire emergency procedures into operation.
The first step, which began at 6 p.m. on Nov. 1, was to call customers in wind-prone areas to alert them about the red flag warning and the possibility that the conditions could cause power outages, said SDG&E spokesman Stephanie Donovan. Using its automated message system, the utility contacted 11,500 customers in backcountry areas of Ramona, Julian, Wynola, Santa Ysabel, Buckman Springs, Potrero and Descanso.
“We wanted them to be prepared for possible power outages as a result of the weather or the possibility that SDG&E might have to turn off power for public safety, depending on the weather conditions,” Donovan said.
The utility also opened its emergency operations center so that it could closely monitor weather conditions, using the 130 weather stations that it has installed in high fire risk areas in the past four years.
“We used to have only one weather station per circuit, and now some circuits have as many as five, so we can try to pinpoint the potential impact of weather on our system,” Donovan said. “We also began staging crews in wind-prone areas to hasten response time.”
A typical crew is four SDG&E troubleshooters and two or three firefighters, who are part of a contract wildfire strike team hired by the utility.
“SDG&E had about 90 people staged in the areas where the highest winds were forecast,” Donovan said. “This included our distribution crews, contract firefighters, transmission construction and maintenance crews, and even Telecomm personnel.”
The staging of observers turned out to be “invaluable,” she said.
“Specifically, an electric troubleshooter out of SDG&E’s construction and operations center in Escondido followed fire trucks onto Tribal Road within the Rincon Reservation to find poles and wire down with a half-acre fire. It was determined the line was a 2.4 kilovolt customer-owned equipment,” Donovan said.
“Another troubleshooter patrolling a line came across a leaning pole with secondary wire in the Rincon area, and was able to call it in and get it fixed. Finally, one of SDG&E’s weather stations in the Santa Ysabel area stopped updating in the middle of the event, so one of the stand-by crews was sent to troubleshoot the issue and soon had the weather station back on line communicating via cellular modem.”
During the high winds on Wednesday, Nov. 2, the SDG&E distribution system had a total of seven outages, affecting 5,500 customers, Donovan said. Of these, only three were wind-related, impacting about 1,225 customers.
SDG&E also contacted all its “medical baseline” customers who depend on electrically operated life-support equipment.
“We were mobilized and ready to go out in person to make sure of the welfare of our customers,” Donovan said. “Fortunately, the winds were not as strong as forecast, and we didn’t have to knock on any doors.”