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City Dwellers Versus Backcountry Residents

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: San Diego Week host Gloria Penner speaks with local editors about the San Diego City Council's support for SDG&E's plan to cut power to rural residents during fire weather.

San Diego City Council has taken a stand in support of SDG&E’s plan to turn off power in backcountry areas when there’s a high risk of wildfire. Downed power lines have caused several blazes that burned hundreds of homes.

The council heard a couple of hours of testimony from firefighters, city residents, backcountry residents and schools before voting six to two to support the power company’s plan.

Council members took the opportunity to turn up the heat on County Supervisors, saying the city has subsidized the County to the tune of millions of dollars by fighting fires that broke out in the backcountry.

County Supervisor Diane Jacob has calls SDG&E’s proposal “flawed and dangerous,” and back country residents argued before the city that turning off power could cost lives rather than save them.

But City Council President Ben Hueso spoke for the interests of the city dwellers. “We don’t have enough emergency response services in unincorporated areas and putting the burden on San Diego taxpayers is unfair.” he said ,“This an inconvenience, yes, but we cannot continue with the status quo. The status quo is going to take lives and destroy property.”

An SDG&E spokesperson said the power shut off would affect 8,000 to 10,000 people at a time and would only occur when five factors are met, adding up to extremely high fire risk weather conditions. The shuts offs could last up to 72 hours.

SDG&E faces hundreds of millions of dollars in claims related to the 2007 wildfires.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith warned the power company that taking this step won’t absolve it from legal liability for damage caused by downed power lines.

“If this is an effort to shift liability and to escape future liability, it’s going to be futile because these obligations belong to SDG&E,” he said. “They ought to be putting the resources towards protecting the public. These transmission lines in the backcountry have not withstood what they need to withstand.”

The two dissenting votes were Councilwoman Donna Frye and Sherri Lightener. Lightner expressed concerns that the strategy unfairly targets backcountry residents. Frye said she believes the plan is closely linked to the company’s attempts to shift liability.

The Mayors of La Mesa, El Cajon and Escondido also support shutting down power to certain backcountry areas when the wildfire risk is high. SDG&E said it will begin the policy in September. The Public Utilities Commission considers the plan later that month.

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