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SDG&E Says There’s a 100% Chance It’ll Start or Contribute to a Major Wildfire

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In an astonishing series of regulatory filings, SDG&E said it is almost certain to cause or contribute to a catastrophic fire sometime in the next 20 years.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Temperatures are soaring around San Diego. Today. Cal Fire says there's a heightened fire danger assistant chief Jason Rich is asking for San Diego's to be extra careful to help prevent a fire from starting.

Speaker 2: 00:13 We have an abundance of are annual grasses, annual grasses, uh, typically catch fire first. They move our fire, they're very susceptible to when they burned fast, they burn hot and they, they really carry the fire.

Speaker 1: 00:24 He says, cal fire stations are all currently fully staffed and ready to deploy resources here and across the state if needed. There are several large blazes burning across the state as we speak. Firefighters have managed 30% containment of the largest, a 2000 acre blaze burning about 50 miles northwest of Sacramento. Meanwhile, the sky fire forced the evacuation of six flags, magic mountain amusement park and the Santa Clarita Valley. Sunday nine people were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation. That fire is now 70% contained back, closer to home. No reassuring news from San Diego Gas and electric on its role and its equipment. Sparking a future wildfire voice of San Diego reports the utility says it's 100% sure it will cause or contribute to another catastrophic wildfire in the county within the next 20 years. Voice of San Diego, reporter Rye Revard reported the revelation and joins me now with more. Welcome Bri. Hi, thanks for having me.

Speaker 1: 01:23 So first, how did you uncover this prediction by the utility? So in one of their new regulatory filings, they have to make a whole bunch of filings with state utility regulators. They said, hey, we're now going with a model for wildfires where we think, you know, we should expect a wild fire that's caused or contributed to by our equipment every 20 years. You know, they have a one in 20 year model, but hasn't the utility done a lot to prevent a future fire? They have, they have a state of the art weather forecasting system. They have people walking up and down the lines trimming vegetation. Um, they also are doing upgrades to their infrastructure, so it's less likely to cause a fire or it's easier to shut off when there are fire conditions and they are shutting off the power, um, to some areas of the county when it's too hot or too dry or too windy.

Speaker 1: 02:10 Um, which are all things that they say, um, you know, have contributed to the reason they haven't started at or contributed to a fire in the first 12 years. And so far it's, it's seems successful. Um, it's, you know, you have to wonder though, you know, how much of that is luck? All of this a costing, what about 1.5 billion? I understand. Yeah. So far. Um, which you know, sort of pales in comparison to the amount of damage that a major fire can cause. Right. And have any of these preparations included putting power lines underground? Yeah. Uh, there's a lot of undergrounding I think something around in the neighborhood of 60% of SDG and e system. Um, I think that's the figure they'd given me is underground there. They're doing a lot to put, uh, lines underground. But, but it sometimes doesn't, um, you know, it's hard to do that economically in areas with few customers, which tend to be the areas where you have the highest wildfire risk.

Speaker 1: 03:00 Like in the middle of San Diego, you know, you're underground aligned, you've served blocks and blocks of people, dozens of people. But out in the back country, if you wanted to underground stretches and stretches of lines, you might only catch, you know, a couple of customers because they're so far apart. So the economics are different, you know. What about the preservation of human life? Has there been any regulations put in place to ensure that human life and safety hold more value than profit for utility companies like Sdg Annie who say they are 100% sure there power lines will cause or contribute to a catastrophic fire? Well, so I think SD genie would say that everything that they're doing is attempting to save a human life. When people say that, you know, a lot of people are really upset about the shutoffs, um, in certain parts of the county.

Speaker 1: 03:45 We did another story about that last week. Um, but you know, Sdg and e says those people will say, hey, they're just trying to reduce their liability. They're shutting off power cause they don't want to upgrade their equipment or they're not, they don't have full faith in their equipment. Well as will say, well yeah, you know, we are turning off power because if the power line is a nerd it's not going to start a fire. And so there's this interesting crossover between what people say is their liability and what they say is their duty not to start a fire because their liability only comes when there's a fire. So they sort of do go hand in hand. The, the public safety and the trying to avoid a catastrophic financial hit to the company. They're, they're sort of one in the same cause. The, the event is the fire Sdg and e has a prediction as to how much another wildfire would cost the utility.

Speaker 1: 04:33 Talk to us about that. Yeah. So, so these are models and, and you know the percentages, you know how they come up with these things. They told me they ran a whole bunch of different models and different scenarios and this is what they came up with this or one in 20 year, you know, wildfire event that they, that they thought they could be involved in. And um, when they did that modeling, they found, you know, actually, you know, if there's going to be one of these big fires, you know, when we looked at conditions for fire, when they look at climate change, when they look at the way fires have moved in the past, um, you know, where things haven't had been burned. They say, yeah, we're going to cause we think an enormous or contribute to an enormous amount of damage. Um, you know, more than one point $5 billion there.

Speaker 1: 05:12 I'm sort of average for a major event would be in the $3 billion range, mid $3 billion. I understand the company wants to raise rates in relation to all of this. Why does the utility think this is needed? So what they're saying, it's an interesting argument. They're saying our investors don't have a lot of confidence in us right now because you know, they've, we've seen fires in this service territory over a decade ago. We'd saw fires in northern California, we saw fires to our north and Southern California in the Edison Service territory. And so investors are sort of not sure that they want to continue to invest in utilities as vested. You need saying we know that premium, you know, a sort of percentage increase in our rate of return to help reassure investors. And, and I think some re, you know, some readers and listeners are going to be like, well they're just looking out for their bottom line.

Speaker 1: 05:57 The company. Many would argue back that by ensuring investors, they're able to borrow money more cheaply. And so when they can borrow money more cheaply, they can pass those savings, or at least not those higher costs on to customers. And is this desire to increase rates related to the CPU not letting SDG and e pass on cost of the 2007 wildfires to 10 to rate payers? Yeah. So this was a big thing in 2007 a you, you followed it a lot. They couldn't, they, they paid a lot of, for a lot of the damage in the liabilities, um, using their own insurance. But there was a chunk of money, a couple hundred million dollars that they couldn't get their insurance company to pay for. And so they said, hey, we need to raise rates to pay for this. The CPEC said no, and SDG and e has been quite upset ever since. Um, and the other utilities in the state view that as a big risk, they view this sort of unfunded liability that they would face in the case of a fire, um, as, as a big risk to their bottom line. And, um, I think this rate case and the fire model that's in it have everything to do with, with that. I've been speaking with voice of San Diego reporter Rye Revard right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 3: 07:07 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.