Wildfire Risk Leaves California In The Dark
KPBS Roundtable / October 11, 2019
Utility companies across the state enact preventative power outages amid an escalating risk for wildfires. San Diego State University negotiates with the city council over the purchase price for the Mission Valley stadium site. And, an analysis of crime data from the San Diego Police Department reveals a small percentage of vehicle break-ins result in arrests.
Speaker 1: 00:01 A state on edge. New wildfires are burning and as the winds pick up, the power goes off how utilities are trying to prevent disaster making a deal in mission Valley. SDSU has its price. The city of San Diego has another, well, they find a solution to stand schedule for a new stadium plus a common costly crime and few victims will get any help. Why San Diego police say there's little they can do about vehicle break ins? I'm Mark Sauer. The KPBS Roundtable starts now.
Speaker 2: 00:38 [inaudible]
Speaker 1: 00:41 welcome to our discussion to the weak stop stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today. Jennifer banned Grove who covers growth and development for the San Diego union Tribune environment reporter Joshua Emerson Smith of the union Tribune KPB a science and technology reporter, Shalina chat, Lani and investigator producer Tom Jones of NBC seven San Diego. Well, this week has been another Starkey minder of the risk of wildfires and the drastic steps California is taking to prevent them. We're following you. The most immediate issue at hand, wind-driven fires and LA and Riverside counties have destroyed dozens of homes. The fire started Thursday is hot, dry Santa Ana winds descended on the region. The largest of the two fires is burning in Northern San Fernando Valley where evacuation orders are in place for about a hundred thousand people and across the state utilities are taking the rare step of cutting power to millions of residents. It's all in an attempt to prevent wildfires like the ones that we're seeing today and some of the state's deadliest fires have been caused by utility equipment failures. A common sense argument is again being made building homes near wild lands prone to to fire increases the risk of homes burning down. So a start with these preventative power outages as we said here in the open, huge swaths of the state are affected, right?
Speaker 3: 02:02 Yes. That is definitely the case. A Wednesday, the first estimates that came out were that Pacific gas in Alaska electric cut out power to around 2 million customers. And then throughout that time period around Thursday, that went down to around 800,000 customers and slowly it's kind of trickled down to around 500,000. And when it comes to SoCal Edison, it's another 20,000 in San Diego gas and electric, uh, has around 500 [inaudible] without power, right?
Speaker 1: 02:27 Just a few hundred here. And that kind of tracks down the state because the winds are worse up North in this particular Santa Ana episode compared with where they are in San Diego County.
Speaker 3: 02:36 Yes. Um, yes.
Speaker 1: 02:37 Yeah. And now the last thing a power company wants to do is cut power. And we've had some people really angry. Have we met?
Speaker 3: 02:44 We've definitely had a lot of folks angry about that. In fact, governor Gavin Newsome actually slammed Pacific gas and electric, uh, earlier, uh, today he came out with a statement and he said, he basically said, what happened is unacceptable. Um, power outages should be the last resort. Utilities.
Speaker 1: 02:59 Well, that's a nice segue. You've set that up very nicely cause we have a, a some sound here, a bite from the governor and he was quite angry. Let's hear that.
Speaker 4: 03:06 But once our weather network has determined that extreme fire weather conditions have materialized in a given community and our scientists and subject matter experts determine that if a fire starts, it will grow explosively and can be an immediate threat to life and property. That's where we take that step as a last resort to de-energize those power lines for the safety of the community.
Speaker 1: 03:30 Well you're going to recognize that wasn't governor Gavin Newsome. That was a, another soundbite we had from SDG and East spokesperson Brian D'Agostino. So, uh, I don't know if we'll get that bite from the governor, but as you say, he was quite angry. He, he blessed it. Oh we do have new some now let's hear what he has to say.
Speaker 5: 03:48 Over the course of years and years and years, the kind of hardening of the grid was not done. Those were decisions that were made by Pacific gas and electric. They chose not to modernize their grid over the course of many, many years. It led to their own demise. It led to bankruptcy.
Speaker 1: 04:06 All right, so Joshua, he's talking there about, he's saying greed over decades. He's saying, you know, this has been a big problem cause he, he helped this utility out, uh, Pacific gas and electric by, uh, by kind of greasing the skids for the bankruptcy they're in, right?
Speaker 5: 04:20 Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think the point is well-taken, right? I mean, they could underground lines, but it's expensive and it should have been done over decades. Right? So we know that more than 90% of all wildfires in California are started by humans, right? These are not lightning strikes that get out of control. This is human caused fires and we need to take steps to prevent that, including, you know, hardening the electrical grid.
Speaker 1: 04:49 No. A, there are studies backing up the move to cut down power in a Santa Ana event. Does it really work?
Speaker 5: 04:58 Uh, yeah. Yeah. No, I, I think, you know, it's a trade off, right? People don't have electricity. That's a big deal. But we have to figure out how are we going to deal with the situation that we have now, which is lots of people living in wildfire prone areas that basically when we have wind-driven fires, um, can have a hard time escaping. Right. I mean people's lives are at risk, so yeah, I think we have to take some drastic measures.
Speaker 1: 05:23 Yeah. As we certainly saw in paradise last year, 85 people killed in that town, basically leveled by that, that terrible fire. Um, now Shalena you reported this week a SDG and he lost in court again. They're still trying to, to get back the 379 million, uh, some of the losses that they suffered in the 2007 fire is that wrap that up is at the end of the court, the
Speaker 3: 05:44 kind of the end of the line for STG any now, uh, the Supreme court case was kind of their last ditch effort to be able to recover those funds through rate payer money. Um, and I actually reached out to SDG and E this week to find out what happens that 379 million. And, um, apparently it was accounted for in 2017, uh, by Sempra energy as simply a loss.
Speaker 1: 06:04 Okay, so that's a finally behind it. We've talked about that over the years a lot on this show. So Joshua, you mentioned in your story I think pointed out about 11 million people in four and a half million homes are, are in the wild lands or adjacent to the Wildlands and prone to these fire wrists. And in very simply, the wind blow 60, 80 miles an hour, East County hearsay knocks down some live power lines, sparks a fire, and all of a sudden those wind driven embers are coming to Scripps ranch all the way inland. Uh, everywhere we've seen South and North.
Speaker 5: 06:33 Right? And I think the thing that we're really starting to understand now is that flames are not reaching these homes necessarily. These are embers that are raining down on communities and exploding these houses from the inside out. And then once one house goes up in a community, it spreads, it spreads to the rest of them either through often highly flammable invasive plants that people sometimes have unwittingly planted themselves or from just house to house as as they go up in flames. Jennifer.
Speaker 3: 07:02 Yeah. So I, I find it really fascinating though because we are in this housing crisis, right? And, um, the governor has spoken about that. So is he trying to like reconcile the fact that builders are continuing to build in these wildfire prone areas? Um, and yet it is, uh, poses a threat to future resonance [inaudible]
Speaker 5: 07:22 well, yes, yes. I mean there, there's a number of things that are going on there, right? Like, one, the politics of this is very hard. The building industry wants to develop plots of land that they've been holding for decades. Remember, you know, this probably better than any of us here. If a developer owns a plot of land, they could be trying to develop that for 10, 15, 20 years. It could be half a billion dollars in profits that are hanging in the balance. If all of a sudden you say, Hey, by the way, that's off. That's off limits to you. I mean that could piss off a lot of people.
Speaker 3: 07:54 Julia, you gotta think that really shows the necessity of the utilities and the housing industry kind of working together on this. The San Diego union Tribune actually had a really good statistic that 54% of STG, these power lines are still in wildfire prone areas. And so, you know, and we're talking about hardening our systems, they obviously can't just be in the prettiest parts of town. They have to be happening in places like East County and a San Diego County supervisor, Diane Jacob. That was part of her coming out against the power outage this week.
Speaker 1: 08:24 Well, let me throw something out here. And uh, I mean, is this getting to the point where we're permitting processes and, and of course they have this land, it's in these dangerous areas. Are you gonna see land use decisions and permits a bit come up against people saying, we can't do this because of the fire risk? You can't build there. I mean it's
Speaker 5: 08:41 all up to the supervisors, right? There's no real rules at the state level saying you can't build in these fire prone areas. They have to meet certain building requirements, but it's all up to the local elected officials to make the decision. Now the response the state and the local officials has been, we can make the homes, we can harden the homes with the latest building technology to a point where it is safe. Although we don't really know how that's going to play out. You know, in paradise more than, or roughly about half of the homes that burned down were built after 2008 when the latest building standards came in. So we don't really know if we can harden homes to enough, right. To the point where, yeah, you can build in these areas. But the other key part about this that everyone seems to forget is that when you put homes in wildfire prone areas, the people that live in those homes are just more ignition sources. So you're putting people in places where they're likely to start fires themselves because as you say, 90% are started, more than 90% are started by humans. Yeah.
Speaker 1: 09:39 So do you think you'll see some big push now to a retrofit homes? Sounds like jobs, right?
Speaker 5: 09:44 Yes. Revenue stream for somebody. Yes. There is a big push to retrofit homes and that was part of this huge package of bills that was passed last week and the new, some signed and they're going to throw a bunch of money at this. Try to harden the homes. Cause like part of that paradise problem was a lot of those homes were built, you know, decades ago to the, you know, some to no standards. Right. And when those homes like, so what makes a community weak when it comes to wildfire is the one home that isn't built to spec. Right. Because then the embers get in that home, it explodes into fire and it sets all the rest of the homes on fire. So yeah, there's a big move right now to hardened homes and to improve the evacuation routes around some of the most vulnerable.
Speaker 1: 10:24 All right. How about a time on this segment? But, uh, we will certainly be watching through the weekend. The weather calls for these wins, at least here to be dying down tonight and maybe over the weekend, uh, as bad as it is up in LA and certain areas, perhaps it won't get much worse this time up. Alright, we're gonna move on. There's a lot riding on complex negotiations between San Diego state university and the city of San Diego over the stadium site development in mission Valley, like decisions on roadways and bridges and buildings and Parkland and a stadium that we'll all live with for decades. The reputations of players involved in money, lots of money, everything at stake here. A basic question at the center of the haggling is what is the mission Valley site worth? And let's start there. Uh, Jennifer, you go up to a realtor, you get the cops and you tell us what it's worth, right?
Speaker 6: 11:10 Yeah, I know you can't do that with this kind of site. And in fact, the site has a really complex history as far as appraisals go. So we know that it was appraised back when soccer city was on the table. Um, and then there were, you know, this appraisal process that we're in now. And so the recent number that came out as fair market value for 132 acres that SDSU wants to buy is 68 point $2 million. And the university will tell you that is the fair market value. We are happy to pay that number. However, this city has, San Diego doesn't take that opinion. And actually I should say the report notes that their appraisal knows 68.2 has to do with 20 $17, because that's uh, they, they looked at the market value per the language in the initiative which September 30th, 2017. So the city's position is, that's fair. I mean that, that might be the fair market value, um, in 2017, um, however it doesn't consider other factors of measure G, which is the city cannot, um, pay for any portion of the river park and it cannot absorb the cost of the demolition of the existing stadium. So the city believes if you crunch some numbers, that's actually 86 point $2 million in 20 $17 I think what's really fascinating is our IBA just put out a report
Speaker 1: 12:32 that's the independent independent budget analyst,
Speaker 6: 12:34 right? And they're independent. I'm from the city and completely independent from, from SDSU and her number's a little bit different. Uh, she seems to um, agree with the city's position that the 86.2 million a million dollar number is actually more in line with measure G. but if you look at 20 $19, the figure is closer to 104 point $5 million.
Speaker 1: 12:57 Okay. And in San Diego state, it's supposed to make a specific bid. Monday we had a story on that.
Speaker 6: 13:02 Yeah. You know, I keep checking the council docket to see if the agenda's been updated, but everything I've been told is that they're going to city council, they will make a presentation during that presentation. They are going to make a formal offer. We know that because of statements they've made, they're comfortable with the 68 point $2 million. So we'll probably hear that, but we'll also probably hear like other concessions, like now they're going to build Fenton Parkway bridge, which we've talked about. We have a bridge to nowhere. Um, so there, there, there are some key caveats around that though. So their estimate is $20 million, but they're saying the city would have to do the environmental review on that. So it would be separate than their environmental review process that is ongoing.
Speaker 1: 13:44 All right. I want to get into some more details in the things that may hang them up, but we do have a, a, a some sound here from, uh, a city Councilman, Scott Sherman. Uh, that district includes mission Valley. And before I go on, I should should note San Diego state's, uh, broadcasting licenses is controlled by San Diego state university. So I'm sorry, KPBS is broadcasting license. Let's hear from Scott Sherman and what he's saying about all these complex issues.
Speaker 7: 14:08 Yeah, I think it boils down to the appraised price versus a price with deductions for a lot of things that San Diego state says they're going to do. You know, they said they'll build a river park and maintain it with no cost to the taxpayers general fund, but yet they wanted to duct the cost of that construction from the purchase price and the appraised value of the land. To me, that's costing the taxpayers money because if you've got an appraised price here and you're deducting, say $12 million out of it, then suddenly you've got a point where that's a taxpayer money being used in offset their, their development. Same with the demolition of the stadium.
Speaker 6: 14:47 Okay.
Speaker 1: 14:47 Well the dome demolition, he brings up, that's a big, I can't even imagine that concrete and where it's going to go with, that's a huge problem, but it's millions of dollars just to tear the whole thing down before you start building. Right.
Speaker 6: 14:56 Yeah. I mean, I think one of the estimates in the appraisals is 10 point $2 million just for [inaudible].
Speaker 1: 15:01 Well, just for demolition the costs and the value of the river park. Uh, some of these other things we're talking about, we're going to get into haggling over mitigation and traffic and all of this stuff, which is all on the table now.
Speaker 6: 15:14 It is on the table and the reason that it's on the table is because SDSU is, is doing to parallel process. So they are, um, per state law going through sequence, which they need to do an environmental impact report that studies every single impact that could possibly arise out of the project. Not just the stadium, but the full project that they want to do on this site. Traffic traffic, that is the big [inaudible].
Speaker 1: 15:37 So there'll be some housing elements that are retail, commercial, the stadium, as you say, traffic is charged per se,
Speaker 6: 15:43 which is actually a big concern to the city as well.
Speaker 1: 15:46 Goodness. There's no traffic emission Valley.
Speaker 6: 15:49 Oh no, no. But yes, so that the university really released a draft report. I think back in August there was a public comment period. I got ahold of the city's response. And there are some, um, what appeared to be some fundamental flaws in the report according to the city, the city won't use the word flaw. That's a very strong word. But, uh, they take issue with, with the university's traffic calculations, for instance, they take, uh, issue with the mitigation or the lack there of that the university is proposing, they take issues with the hydrology that the university is planning to do. So, um, if we get really into the weeds on the, um, the Eastern boundary of the site is a Murphy Canyon Creek. And right now that's the city responsibility. Um, and sometimes that Creek floods the project site. So the city would like the university to take that Creek under, you know, to take control of that Creek. And they might even have to realign that Creek because that, that Creek flows into the San Diego river and does create flooding problems. But the city also identified in the EIR and the, in this interview, um, environmental report that if, um, the Creek floods part of the project site. And even though SDSU is planning for that, that creates some other environmental impacts that they're not necessarily okay with.
Speaker 1: 17:06 Well, let's hear San Diego state side, we've got negotiator, Gina Jacobs, how she sees a, the negotiations going so far.
Speaker 6: 17:13 Yeah, I mean I think this is actually a good thing in some ways because it really shows that we're getting toward closer to the end of this process. And I don't think that this is insurmountable. I think that this is something we can, you know, work out and, and determine and get to the end games where we can actually purchase this property and do what we want to do, which is expand our campus. Okay.
Speaker 1: 17:37 All right. So, so we're at this point, uh, is this what the public should expect to, this is a big negotiation, a lot of moving parts of we, as we've said, we haven't touched on all of them, but it's real complex. Uh, don't panic. Things are moving along. Okay.
Speaker 6: 17:51 Yes and no. I mean, the, the university might, um, might be panicking a little bit. I can't say for certain on that. I'm, I'm just guessing because the environmental impact report is actually really crucial part of this process because it is um, a part of state law and if something comes up between now and when they would like to finalize their port report and then go to their board of trustees for approval, that is significant enough that it hasn't been identified in their report. They will have to re circulate that report in. That could be months of delays.
Speaker 1: 18:22 Okay. And we're just about out of time here, but, but the university's fairly aggressive in their time. They have all right. They want, they want to start building this stadium ready for the 2022 seasons.
Speaker 6: 18:32 They want to certify their environmental report in January. They want to close on the land in January and they want to break ground in February. Wow.
Speaker 1: 18:39 All right. Lots to talk about. We'll be back in [inaudible] and doing this again many times as I can see, we're going to move on. We can all imagine and many of us have actually experienced the anger and frustration of returning to your car to find somebody has broken into it. It's hardly an uncommon experience in San Diego. The immediate urge, call the cops, find that thief arrest him. It turns out that's the height of wishful thinking. And Tom start there with how many a vehicle break-ins happen approximately,
Speaker 8: 19:08 right? Yeah. So we were looking at San Diego police data and on average there's about 7,200 vehicle break-ins a year, but every year they've been on the rise. And out of those break-ins, 97% result in no arrests. They're open investigations. No resolution.
Speaker 1: 19:26 97% well that's interesting though. You, you started your story off, uh, with a typical case, a, a victim. Peter King. Tell us.
Speaker 8: 19:35 Yeah. So Peter Kang, very, you know, just like all of us, he was working at a gym and Carmel Valley comes out, sees his car's been broken into, his wallet's gone and first thought was, Oh, well there's a police substation like really close by. So I'll just drive over there to go talk to them. They'll want to be right on the case, right. Don't want to be right on it. But police tell him, Hey sir, that's not really how it works. You need to fill out a form online. And uh, so he was kind of, he wasn't discouraged just yet, so he started looking up on his bank's app, looking to see if there was any purchases made. And he saw that the thief's were buying things at the UTC mall stores. He would never go to like foot locker. So he goes to the stores and says, Hey, can I get your surveillance video? My, my credit card was stolen. It was just used here. And again, they said, sorry sir, that's just not how it works. We can't just give you surveillance video. Uh, so in the end, uh, he filled out the form online, but he never heard.
Speaker 1: 20:33 All right, now we've got a couple of sound bites. Uh, yeah, it's, it is, it's frustrating as we call them. So we'll get back to that in a second. But we do have a couple of bytes from, first of all, Peter King and then for Lieutenant, uh, Sean Takuchi, the San Diego police department, let's hear their explanations on this.
Speaker 9: 20:52 When I first tried to do was go to the police station just down the street on El Camino reality. But it turns out that you can't speak to them in person. In fact, they just give you a number to call from my, my sense of the call was that they weren't super receptive. Um, it was more like they were just kind of go with going through the motions.
Speaker 10: 21:07 We don't have a unit of officers assigned for break-ins. The reason why is because it wouldn't be an effective use of resources. Fingerprints aren't enough to have behind. DNA isn't left behind. Tools to the crime aren't left behind. And in some cases, even if we have video surveillance, identifying individuals using video surveillance is very, very difficult.
Speaker 1: 21:24 Yeah. For our radio audience, they showed a little video surveillance and he's right. It is. Just because you have a movie doesn't mean it's, you know, made by Spielberg. So we assume the criminals breaking into cars are well aware of these stats and the limitations regarding police follow up.
Speaker 8: 21:38 I think it's safe to say, I mean it's a crime of opportunity. You know, maybe the monetary value isn't that great, but um, yeah, I know what's, what's really stopping them. Yeah. The risk of getting caught. Right.
Speaker 9: 21:51 You know, I find it kind of hard to believe that there isn't just that much evidence available. I mean, did you look into that at all? You would think? I mean, basically what police told us is they just, they don't have anyone assigned looking for evidence.
Speaker 1: 22:04 Yeah. So if there's fingerprints, if there's a DNA, whatever, even video in the case of this, uh, Peter Kane going out and getting his own video, they've got nobody to go out there and run the, do the fingerprinting run the fingerprints. There's just too [inaudible].
Speaker 8: 22:17 Exactly. They say it's just not an effective use of [inaudible].
Speaker 1: 22:20 Now would they, would the expend the effort and maybe get a little bit of a task force and throw a few detectives if say one neighborhood is getting, you know, dozens of break-ins at a time when that happens? Right.
Speaker 8: 22:31 Well, it's a lot more victims. Maybe some sort of like theft ring or in the rare current where they could catch someone in the act. But I mean, how, how rare is that? You know? Um, but it really comes down to the victim count. Right?
Speaker 6: 22:45 It's so interesting to me though because I don't know about you guys, but I'm on my local next door and like this is the number one thing. Oh, the, the community website where yes, it's a social media site where [inaudible] watches out for each other. You're all neighbors essentially, and you can only see stuff in your community. But the number one thing that I see in my neighborhood is like somebody broke into my car and everyone in the comments is don't even bother calling them [inaudible].
Speaker 8: 23:07 Right. And that was kind of one of the reasons that kind of tipped us off to wanting to look at this. So
Speaker 1: 23:12 now they maybe get it from the other end. If they find a, somebody who's got a bunch of stolen things here, they've got a bunch of loot and maybe they're trying to move them, sell them for pennies on the dollar somewhere. Maybe then catch a ring on that end.
Speaker 8: 23:26 Yeah. But it again, it's not, they don't necessarily have agents assigned looking for those, you know, situations. Oh,
Speaker 1: 23:34 they just maybe happen on it. And another investigation. Now you report it on some of the hardest hit parking lots around town. Tell us where those places are. Yeah, so
Speaker 8: 23:44 San Diego, and this is looking at the last five years, San Diego zoo's parking lot had the most break ins, but it comes with a caveat. It has been going down each year to pry because you know, technology cameras, I know they have that. A watch tower, you know, in the parking lot. Um, behind San Diego zoo there was fashion valet mom, mission Valley mall, um, the Coles mountain, there's a little parking area. If you want to go hike Cole's mountain, that area came in number four right off Navajo on the front side. Right. Several ways to get up that. But that's a lot of break ins every year. And then the last was a Alvarado hospital, the parking lot right there. So that's where people are
Speaker 1: 24:23 watching. Yeah. You know, it's interesting because, uh, on TV and in the media and all we see that cameras are everywhere. I mean, the video is everywhere. How many times you see a day that YouTube has posted this or that or this crazy thief never thought anybody's watching and they're watching. But it doesn't seem to apply here.
Speaker 8: 24:38 No, not really. And I mean, really, you know, all you can do to, you know, is more preventative measures. You know, make sure you don't leave your valuables and view or you keep them with you better yet. Um, you know, most auto insurance policies don't cover stolen items, but if you have like a renter's insurance policy and you insure your personal home long homeowner's policy, that will most oftentimes cover your belongings, even if they're outside of your home or your apartment or Josh Bay area. The mantra was don't even leave an empty cardboard box in your car.
Speaker 1: 25:14 Yeah, because there's so many [inaudible] Oh man. An enticing. Wow. Okay. Uh, a few seconds left here. A, again, all you can do is harden your stuff, hide your stuff, but you're not even gonna make an insurance claim normally because maybe it's a purse. You cancel your credit card, you're out a few bucks. Your deductible isn't going to make it pay.
Speaker 8: 25:32 Yeah, so it was, it's kind of, no, it's kind of frustrating that there's really no Avenue. It's really mostly all [inaudible].
Speaker 1: 25:37 All right. All the time. But take the Metro, there's, you are taking, take the trolley. That's it. That's the answer to that. Well, that does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Jennifer van Grove of the San Diego union Tribune. Joshua Emerson Smith of the union Tribune, Shalini chaat, Lani of KPBS news and Tom hall, NBC [inaudible], San Diego. And a reminder, all the stories we discussed today are available on our website, kpbs.org I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next Friday on the round table.
Speaker 2: 26:15 [inaudible].