A decision to cut power – on purpose – to thousands of residents in Riverside County mountain communities for about 33 hours last week is an example of how far Southern California utilities are willing to go to prevent arcing power lines from sparking wildfires during high winds.
And, in the wake of the deadliest fires in California history in October, it’s a practice that may spread to the northern part of the state, according to Bill Stewart, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
“It’s going to be a great big regulatory issue, I’m sure,” Stewart said by phone Monday.
State investigators are looking into whether some of the October fires may have been sparked by electric lines. Of the 20 most destructive wildfires in Calfornia history, at least three were blamed on power lines; nine others are still under investigation or the cause was never determined.
Related: How do wildfires start? Usually with people
Although experts say cutting off power has the ability to prevent fires, it inevitably hurts families who depend on electricity for lights, warmth, cooking, pumping well water and operating life-preserving medical equipment — not to mention cuts power to hospitals, traffic signals and other vital services.
On Thursday, Dec. 7 — a day when multiple brush fires were raging out of control across Southern California and wind gusts over 50 mph were hitting the San Jacinto Mountains — Southern California Edison took the aggressive step of turning the power off just before noon in Idyllwild, Anza, Mountain Center and other communities, said Mary Ann Milbourn, an Edison spokeswoman.
The idea was to prevent fierce and dry Santa Ana winds from slapping tree branches against power lines in the heavily forested area and triggering yet another inferno.
Milbourn emphasized that Edison rarely turns the switch off for fire-prevention purposes.
“It has to be a pretty extraordinary situation before we do this,” Milbourn said. “The last time anybody around here can remember doing this was in 2007, and that again was in the Idyllwild area.”
‘Nobody was happy’
Milbourn said the outage affected 3,100 Edison customers, with each representing a home or a business.
But the impact was actually much greater than that because one of those customers was Anza Electric Cooperative. Kevin Short, the co-op general manager, said Anza Electric serves 5,200 customers and about 10,000 people.
“Nobody was happy about it, understandably,” Short said.
Milbourn said Edison finished restoring electricity by 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8.
While the power was out, Beth Severance, a receptionist at Idyllwild’s Bluebird Cottage Inn, said the 17-cabin lodging business phoned people with reservations to inform them that the lights were out. Some canceled reservations. Others came up anyway.
“Some of them thought it was a grand adventure,” Severance said, adding that LED-powered candles were distributed upon their arrival.
Still, it was cold for many in town. Residents and visitors alike flocked to the four restaurants that had generators and remained open, she said.
“For many of us, it was kind of like old-home week,” Severance said. “We just gathered at these restaurants and charged our phones. And we talked about the weather.”
Some “made ice runs down the hill” to Hemet to keep food from spoiling in their refrigerators, she said.
“Some people were real upset about it,” Severance said. “But this is fire season up here. And we have downed trees and limbs everywhere. So I am very glad that Edison did this.”
Lessons from 2007 firestorm
Milbourn noted that the last time Edison cut power to Idyllwild was in 2007, when the mountains of Riverside and San Bernardino counties were reeling from an epic tree kill caused by drought and a bark beetle infestation.
That same year, San Diego County was hammered by a wave of wildfires, three of which were blamed on power lines. The region’s utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, paid out about $2 billion in damages over those wildfires, according to local media reports.
In the wake of those fires, SDG&E requested permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to shut off power in the backcountry when wind speeds reached certain levels. But the proposal sparked widespread outrage from rural residents, and the commission rejected the request.
The regulatory agency, however, invited SDG&E to submit a comprehensive shut-off plan, and one was ultimately given the green light in April 2012.
Last Thursday — the same day the 4,100-acre Lilac fire started in northern San Diego County — power was purposely cut to approximately 17,000 customers across the county’s rural areas, according to a SDG&E news release.
Ari Vanrenen, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric, the main utility in Northern California, said PG&E does not have a policy of cutting power to eliminate fire threats, though it has done so in direct response to requests from fire agencies.
Vanrenen said he could not address whether a shut-off policy might have prevented a blaze.
“As there has been no determination on the causes of the fires, we won’t speculate while the investigation is ongoing,” Vanrenen said.
“It’s important to keep in mind that any discussion of proactively de-energizing lines is highly complex due to significant public safety issues such actions can pose,” Vanrenen added.
Stewart, the UC Berkeley expert, however, said it is possible that a shut-off policy would have helped. And Northern California utilities may eventually join SDG&E and Edison in adopting such programs.
“It has been very successful in San Diego and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the PUC force it to be done in other places,” Stewart said.
Source: Oc Register