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San Diego's Wildfire Preparedness

San Diego's Wildfire Preparedness
The state Public Utilities Commission essentially rejected SDG&E's controversial emergency power shut-off plan earlier this week. The PUC said it will make a final decision on the plan in September.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): We are just days away from the start of the fire season and already there are fires north of us so let's take a look at how ready San Diego is to deal with those dreaded wildfires that generally start in rural east county areas but, as we know from recent dreadful experience, they can quickly spread into the more populous neighborhoods of the cities. So, Kent, one controversy to try to control backcountry fires is still unresolved. It's the proposal from SDG&E to cut off power to those backcountry rural areas during dry, windy Santa Ana conditions. Now bring us up to date. Where does that issue now stand?

KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Okay. It's in front of the PUC. The PUC will…

PENNER: Public Utilities Commission.

DAVY: The State Public Utilities Commission. They will decide that – when in red flag conditions whether SDG&E will be allowed to give 12-hour notice to its customers in the backcountry and then shut power off to approximately 65,000 homes and businesses. It would affect about 130,000 people in places like Ramona, Fallbrook, Pala, Pauma Valley, Valley Center, Julian, parts of rural Escondido, parts of rural Poway. It would – it is a very controversial suggestion.

PENNER: It is, indeed. And it isn't settled yet. Now I've got one other kind of factual question for you and that is, will the Public Utilities Commission be the ultimate decider here?

DAVY: There may be lawsuits that happen but, fundamentally, yes. It's whatever the PUC rules are going to go forward on this. If the PUC says no, this – that the utility can't do it, the utility, I don't think, is going to be able to cross that line.

PENNER: Well, I think you're right when you say it's controversial. I mean, we've heard from the San Diego City Council, they favor it. We've heard from Dianne Jacob, the supervisor from that area, she opposes it. And one administrative judge actually recommended that the PUC reject the plan and one of the commissioners on the PUC said, okay, you know, let's try it as a pilot program. So what are the main objections that you've heard about, Tom York?

TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, let me just say that I think in the part of PG&E – I'm sorry, SDG&E is that they're in a damned if you do, damned if you don't position because they're already facing – they've already paid out $740 million for what happened in 2007 with the fires that they were responsible for. And I think they're trying to come up with a plan that will limit their exposure the next wildfire that comes through and so, you know, they're in betwixt and between and I'm not so sure how all this is going to play out.

PENNER: I passed around to the editors, just as we were sitting down, this morning's San Diego Union-Tribune that has a whole bunch of letters to the editor in it having to do with this SDG&E plan, and I see you have it sitting in front of you, Scott Lewis. There was one letter from a water company there, I think the San Miguel…


PENNER: …Water District?

LEWIS: The Ramona Municipal…

PENNER: Oh, Ramona, thank you.

LEWIS: …Water – yeah.

PENNER: Ramona Municipal Water District, you know, basically saying, hey, they should be speaking to us because we have some real concerns.

LEWIS: They said that the San Diego City Firefighters Union should be speaking to them. Now this is what's interesting right now. The – On the radio and in other forums, there are a lot of ads coming out from SDG&E saying, look, this is the San Diego City Firefighters Union, they say this is the best plan forward. SDG&E has a big PR challenge right now to convince people that, yes, indeed, the best thing we can do to protect the city, the county and everybody is to shut off power. And that's a pretty bold thing to put out and so they're using this as a PR campaign. Now this guy from Ramona is saying, well, if the firefighters union really wanted to study this, why didn't they come talk to us, and they won't. And I think that this is the big issue, is that the – look, the City of San Diego sees the fires come in and burn down houses and they say, well, look, you know, SDG&E should probably do a bunch of things for this but what they're not doing is – is that yet, so they should at least shut off power so it doesn't start.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. This is only part of what we're going to be talking about today but if you want to get in on telling us how you feel about the plan to shut off power to the backcountry, this is your chance to do it because we're going to take your phone calls right after the break and, Kent, you want to say something briefly, please.

DAVY: Yeah and that is imagine yourself as a firefighter in the backcountry and the power goes off and where do you find the power to run the pumps…


DAVY: …or the water to help fight the fire?

PENNER: And people are also talking about, you know, suppose that my car is in my garage and I want to escape from the fire scene and I can't get my car out of the garage because the power is off? Although most garages have some kind of a manual system, don't they?

DAVY: Yes.

LEWIS: And then to add to it, today we did a story about 200, you know, unfortunate people who have medical issues or medical devices or other things that haven't heard about the plan yet. And so, you know, they – their power might get shut off, the things they use to stay alive and stay healthy are going to shut off and – and so there's a lot of problems with it. Dianne Jacob, the county supervisor, actually said, alleged that the SDG&E was putting profits ahead of people's safety. I mean, that's quite a bold thing for a supervisor to say about the local utility.

PENNER: Well, there's lots more to talk about here and we will take your calls. We're going to take our break now. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

# # #

PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner and I'm at the Editors Roundtable this morning with Scott Lewis and Kent Davy and Tom York and you. We're talking about is San Diego ready for the fire season, which already has descended on parts of northern California, and we sure can expect something to happen down here the way the weather's been. Although it's cooled off a little bit this weekend. But this isn't a weather report. We're just discussing the issues and before we move on to more issues related to fire preparedness, let's finish this one up with some calls from our listeners. Greg in Oceanside is with us. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning.

PENNER: Good morning. Go ahead, please.

GREG: I have a concern and I haven't heard it addressed by anybody talking about the power shutoffs. It would seem to me that when you have the system on, that you'd be able to, in real time, analyze where power went off and where you have a problem. Where if you turn the power off, you could have lines still go down, obviously, but you wouldn't know where the lines were down and I can't imagine that you'd be able to analyze, you know, in any real time way or through observation where lines were down. Then you turn the power back on and all of sudden you've got lines that are starting fires everywhere and, you know, it might be a little while before you figure out, gee, maybe we ought to shut the power off again.

PENNER: Okay, thank you. Is it my understanding or am I incorrect that the power would only be shut off to 10,000 customers at a time? Have you heard that?

LEWIS: I heard that that would be, I think, a minimum slice that they could do.

PENNER: I see.

LEWIS: I believe.

PENNER: I mean, it would – did you sense that it's turning all the power off to all 130,000?

LEWIS: I think it depends on where the red flag conditions are. It is – it is anticipatory to turn the power off so that they don't get line arcing as the wind blows and causes sparks which is – was the cause of the Witch Creek fire. And in anticipation of that, they shut the power off in particular areas where those conditions exist.

PENNER: Okay, so can we answer Greg? I mean, his suggestion, does it make any sense?

LEWIS: I think – No, I can't answer that technically.

PENNER: Okay. Okay. Sorry, Greg, no, we're all sitting here but we’re ruminating on what you have to say.

LEWIS: Well, maybe SDG&E'll call in and, you know, explain what happens when they actually shut it down. Can they track what happens to the line, is what he's saying. My understanding is they'll look at the conditions of the weather, they'll be able to detect when the high probability of fire season – fire danger is, and then they'll be able to shut off the lines. And they basically want to say, look, you're blaming us for causing these fires in the past. Well, why don't we just do – why don't we just shut off power and prove if it does start, it's not our fault.

PENNER: You know, it's interesting in some of those letters that I read and other comments that I've heard, there's this sense of we are really helpless in the face of SDG&E because it's a monopoly, quote, unquote, a monopoly, and that we really don't have the power because they do.

DAVY: It's a regulated industry which is why it's in front of the PUC. The PUC gets to decide whether or not SDG&E has the authority to do this or not and can whack the SDG&E if they get out of line about it.

PENNER: Shane, you're on with us now. Shane from San Diego.

SHANE (Caller, San Diego): Well, one simple question. What are the firefighters for?

PENNER: What are the firefighters for?

LEWIS: Depends on where you're at.

PENNER: Yes, Scott.

LEWIS: In the City of San Diego, the chief and the firefighters union are all for shut this thing down. In other parts of the county, they're not. And that's just the – this is a really interesting divide between urban San Diego and rural San Diego. I mean, that's basically it. Urban says keep your fires out of here, you don't have a backcountry fire department, you don't have the protections out there, so turn the power off. And if you're in danger, well, you know, that kind of stinks for you because you live in a high danger area.

PENNER: And some people also think that it's a question of money. Is the money that's being shunted into, let's say, law enforcement, should more of that go to fire? Fighting fire? So there are all kinds of mixtures, of split beliefs and split preferences.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, Dianne Jacob is so fired up about this but where has she and the rest of the county been on forming a backcountry fire department that could take care of this? Where – You know, she says San Diego Gas & Electric doesn't want to spend the money to protect the lines from doing it but why doesn't the county want to spend the money to fight the fire?

DAVY: She has been a proponent of a consolidated fire…

PENNER: She has. Okay. Well, that is our next topic. That's what I want to talk about next is part of fire preparation. The County was never able to put a fire agency consolidation, bringing all of these little fire districts and fire agencies that survive mostly with volunteer firefighters and some small boards into a unit. And even though Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Jerry Sanders teamed up to get it through, how important is fire agency consolidation to fire preparedness and to fighting fires? What do you think, Kent?

DAVY: I think it depends on who you talk to. Certainly, the City of San Diego and a number of people countywide argue for fire consolidation, say that we would have better trained firefighters, there would be more effective uses of money, that communications between departments would be vastly improved, that it would be easier to direct resources at fires. The other side of the argument is – has been typically that it would vastly increase the cost, that if in a – Basically in a time where money is short, where are you going to find the money to actually pull this kind of consolidation off? It's a close call.

LEWIS: There are hundreds of thousands of acres in the backcountry that simply aren't – it's nobody's job to protect those acreage – that excuse me, that acreage from fires or to stop the fires there. It's a patchwork system. And, you know, Dianne Jacob may have voiced support for this in the past but her constituents in the rural and east county areas voted against that fire parcel tax at a higher percentage than any other group in the county. So when it comes to fire protection, they're not willing to step up but when it comes to blaming the utility for trying to prevent it then they do. Now, and is the utility blame free? Of course not. Now, why don't they have the best steel poles up? Why don't they have the spacers between the lines? Why don't they spend the money to do this? They've literally been given three choices when it comes to the fact that they're responsible for causing fires. One, let the fire start and pay the damages. Two, shut off the power. Or, three, spend the money to make sure it doesn't happen. And the third is not a very palatable option for them.

PENNER: All right, let's hear from Holly in El Cajon on this. Holly, you're on with the editors.

HOLLY (Caller, El Cajon): Hi. Thank you. I am surprisingly finding myself on the side of the utility company, SDG&E, because, you know, in the 2007 fires, the fires weren't out and class action lawsuits were being filed against the utility. And I just am really surprised that we're hold – I think that we're holding the utility to an almost impossible standard of don't cause fires but provide your services everywhere to everyone all the time. I just can't imagine how they are supposed to do that really.

PENNER: Okay. Tom and then Kent.

YORK: Well, I want to say that, you know, as the backcountry becomes more populated with people moving out of the urban areas, suburban areas to the rural areas, they have to realize they're putting themselves in harms way when these situations come up. So the fact is that you need a professional firefighting force and you also need a lot of education as to how to protect your property. I wouldn't put all the onus on SDG&E. You know, I think there's other factors at play here. Also the state and the county governments have to set priorities. If firefighting is a priority, it has to be a priority. You can't slough that off.

PENNER: Well, I just want to say one thing. I think the voters kind of set a priority. I was just looking at the history of this.

YORK: Right.

PENNER: In November 2004, the unincorporated areas of the county voted on an advisory vote on consolidation and it was 81% yes and almost 19% no. That didn't get implemented. In 2008, that's the one you were talking about, Scott Lewis, county voters almost passed a $52.00 a parcel tax to consolidate fire agencies. A two-thirds vote was needed and almost 64% of the voters said yes. That wasn't enough to pass but I'm just wondering if it was enough to tell county officials it's time to pull together the many fire departments, organize a unified approach.

LEWIS: You know, it failed barely and it's because nobody championed it. You know, you said Roberts was probably the only one, Ron Roberts, the county supervisor…

PENNER: And Sanders.

LEWIS: Well, Sanders gave it lip service at the end of his speeches. He would, you know, occasionally talk about it at the Rotary Club but he didn't bring his full capital to bear on that. Nobody wanted this thing to go through and they left Roberts out there to hang. Now, I – You know, Roberts has a management style, a leadership style, that isolates himself from other county supervisors and other political leaders in the county and he's going to have to deal with that. But the fact is, is that without true political leadership they still got sixty, what did you say, three percent of the vote. They needed 66.

PENNER: Sixty – yeah, 64%.

LEWIS: And then, you know, where were these backcountry constituents pulling together on this? Where – It's easy right now to say that SDG&E is the bad guy and they could spend more money to make this not the case. I mean, the woman says what – the caller said what could SDG&E do? Well, they could spend the money to make sure that their lines don't fall on the ground and cause fires or that their lines don't get blown into trees and cause fires. That's what they could do.

PENNER: Okay, yes, go ahead, Kent Davy.

DAVY: Let me point out that California has been suffering wildfires for perhaps forever. And we've had electric utilities around for – at least for a hundred years. This is – this would be the – only the second time in the history of California that this kind of a plan were to be invoked as a fire prevention kind of technique. It was tried once before by PG&E during a bark beetle crisis I think up around Lake Arrowhead or someplace around there as a, I think, a two-year experiment while they cleaned dead timber out. The critics are suggesting that SDG&E is attempting to do this instead of taking care of its obligations to make sure brush is cleared away from its lines.

PENNER: Okay. Let's hear from Michael in Julian now. Michael, you're on with the editors.

MICHAEL (Caller, Julian): Well, thank you. The issue up here, and this ties into San Diego Gas but it also ties into the fire, and I'll address the fire. We do have fire departments. Yes, they are volunteer. They work probably harder than the guys who are getting paid because they have other jobs and then come to fire. Now the issue as far as fighting fire, that and talking about these 900,000 acres that is not protected, that's Cal Fire's responsibility in many cases. It's the U.S. Forest Service's responsibility in many cases. Fire departments, city fire departments, backcountry fire departments are all in charge of fighting fires at houses, at structures. They're not in charge of fighting fires that are sweeping through the Cuyamacas.

PENNER: All right. Michael, I want to tell you that, from my understanding, the state has cut the budget to Cal Fire by $27 million, including canceling a $7 million contract with that water-carrying DC-10 which was on call all the time. It's not even around now. It's somewhere else. So, I mean, how dangerous is this? Can you count on Cal Fire?

MICHAEL: Oh, there are those out here that will say you never could but that – those are the responsibilities, and to argue that the San Diego City firefighters think that the backcountry has no fire protection is absolutely absurd.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much. Gentlemen, we have time for some final remarks on this so you can talk about SDG&E, you can talk about fire consolidation, you can talk about the state reducing the amount of money available for Cal Fire, and you might even want to talk about – it was Dianne Jacob who said she doesn't want the county to have veto power over whether the power shutoff should happen because then the liability would shift to the county.

LEWIS: Oh, imagine that.

PENNER: All right, so you – Go ahead, Scott.

LEWIS: You know, when it comes to the fact that they're going to be held responsible for actually making the decision, then it becomes a different calculation. I think that's a really interesting perspective. I mean, you know, that's SDG&E's position right now, is that if we don't do something, we're going to be held liable. And so they say, well, you should fix your lines, you should bury them, you should do whatever you can to prevent it. Well, okay, well what do we do next year? Are we going to get hit with another $673 million settlement because of what we allowed to happen? Or can we prevent that?

PENNER: Scott, what's more expensive? You know, SDG&E's having to pay off this money, the county, the homeowners and the…

LEWIS: Well…

PENNER: …associated costs of a huge fire?

LEWIS: I bet that SDG&E does not have journalists trying to figure out that math problem right now.

YORK: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I bet you they are making that analysis as we speak. And, you know, that's part of the brutal calculation that has to be made. And, you know, it's just, as Tom said, you live in Julian, you live in these – in this backcountry area, you're going to be in danger. Now, what do you prefer that SDG&E do in the next three months to make sure it can prevent it?

PENNER: Tom York.

YORK: Well, I was also going to say that in addition to the $740 million that they paid out, they still face tens of millions of dollars in claims. And this is a very, very expensive cost to them and so they want to prevent this in the future. Otherwise, they – their business will be impacted so…

DAVY: But remember this is a regu…

PENNER: Take it home.

DAVY: …regulated industry. They go to the PUC and say we need this kind of a return on our investment, this is the kind of money we need guaranteed. That's why they're a regulated industry.

PENNER: Okay, well I thank you all, gentlemen, very much. I thank our callers and our listeners, and I want to add a special thank you to Bob Kittle, former editor of the San Diego editorial page – San Diego Union-Tribune editorial page, who generously contributed his time to Editors Roundtable for more than 10 years. All of us at Editors Roundtable wish him well. This has been the Editors Roundtable on KPBS. I'm Gloria Penner.

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