With Tecate fire nearby, East County outraged by SDG&E’s power outages

by on November 4, 2011 · 3 comments

in Civil Rights

Smoke from fire near Tecate, Mexico; (photo by Leslie Yoder)

“SDG&E exemplifies the hypocritical worst of the One Percent: higher profits, higher rates and disregard for lives.” – Kim Hamilton, Deerhorn Valley Antler editor

 By Miriam Raftery / East County Magazine / November 3, 2011

Rural East County residents are furious over a power-shut down yesterday while a 600-acre wildfire in Mexico threatened to jump the border. The night before, some residents received a warning from SDG&E that the utility intended to shut off power due to a red flag alert signaling severe fire danger.

SDG&E would not respond yesterday to an ECM question asking whether any power had actually been shut down proactively and if so, in how widespread an area.

“Our neighbors to the east, toward/in Japatul, had their power turned off for five hours during the worst of the red flag alert,” Hamilton said in an “Antler Alert” sent to readers in Deerhorn Valley, just over the border from the Mexico fire. She encouraged concerned residents to “weigh in on SDG&E shutting down our power during the most dangerous fire conditions. Imagine not being able to get that Reverse 9-11 alerrt…”

ECM called SDG&E yesterday to ask for confirmation on whether it shut off power and in what communities. The utility’s media relations department would not respond, instead referring us to an outage page for updates on current outages.

Its outage page read,

“We have an obligation to protect public safety as well as the integrity of our electric systems. If wind speeds exceed electric system limitations or we are unable to operate the system safely, we will turn off the power. If this is necessary, the power will be off for as long as these conditions last and will not be turned back on until it is safe.”

“SDG&E is playing games with our lives,” Hamilton wrote in a post on an ECM article about the fire, faulting the utility for its willingness to “cut off thousands of residents during the worst fire danger conditions, leaving us without reliability phone service…reverse 9-11 alerts and other life-saving information.”

Her community, Deerhorn Valley, has no cell phone reception or cable Internet service, leaving people totally dependent on electricity for phones as well as Internet connections.

As ECM reported yesterday, Cal-Fire confirmed that the Mexico fire was within a mile of the border yesterday morning and afternoon, and was considered a threat to the U.S. The fire scorched more than 600 acres, causing breathing difficulties for individuals across the southern portion of San Diego County and extreme jitters among people in southeast regions close to the border fire and left without power.

Hamilton suggested that the utility should be “charged with a crime and held liable” if it left communities vulnerable and without communications. “SDG&E exemplifies the hypocritical worst of the One-Percent,” she concluded, “higher profits, higher rates and disregard for lives.”

Whether or not the utility actually followed through on its threat to shut off power during a red flag alert, residents are seeing red.

Chuck Hansen, in another post on ECM’s site, noted that the fire situation is no worse than it has been since the Laguna fire 40 years ago.

“The reason SDG&E is shutting off power is a liability and insurance issue,” he theorized. “They told me two years ago that the existing wooden power poles were not safe in high wind conditions.” He added that despite promises to upgrade to metal poles within a year, “here it is two years later, SDG&E is running all over the back country putting in the Sunrise Powerlink while ignoring these “unsafe” wooden poles. Their solution is to shut off our power when the wind blows.”

Hansen expressed outrage at a five-hour power outage and suggested the move was “a drill” intended to “see what the public response is going to be.”

He has good reason to feel burned. “A Powerlink contractor has already set fire to my property this fire season,” Hansen wrote. “My brush clearing efforts aided the hard working fire crews in stopping the spread. Should the same thing happen again during a power shut down my property would be without water,” he pointed out.

Hansen listed the problems and costs caused by the five-hour power shut-down, including “three hours time to get my generator set up, my water pressure restored, to reschedule my doctor’s appointment, two gallons of gasoline, my time to reset computers, clocks and home electronics, the effort to pen animals normally controlled with electric containment system, and my time to clean out the grit from my plumbing system that only occurs when the pressure tanks go flat.”

He intends to send SDG&E a demand for reimbursement, he revealed. SDG&E may be at fault whether the outage was intentional or, perhaps, due to poorly maintained lines or poles that went down in yesterday’s high winds.

If the utility refuses to pay his demand, he says:

“The gauntlet will drop. A public utility has no business interrupting power because their infrastructure is decrepit and substandard. We have no other source of electricity, so it is incumbent upon them to get their existing equipment upgraded to state of the art before they install new equipment—the Sunrise Powerlink.”

Michael Shames, head of the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), called yesterday’s possible shut-off “a sampling of what fate SDG&E may be dealing to backcountry residents in coming years if their proposed shut-off power plan is tolerated by regulators.”

Currently the California Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division is litigating the matter with SDG&E by challenging the utility’s claim that current rules give it the right to proactively turn off power whenever there is a high risk of fire due to hot, windy conditions and low humidity.

“The CPUC is saying that SDG&E can’t do it, but SDG&E is just taking its chances,” Shames stated.

What would it take for the CPUC to take action immediately to halt SDG&E from further power shut-offs during fire-prone conditions?

If a resident filed a complaint seeking an injunction, the CPUC would have power to take action, provided a legal reason were provided to show that SDG&E’s action violates current rules, according to Shames.

Plans for a shut-off yesterday were announced due to the red flag alert for proactive reasons–not due to a fire actually threatening to burn lines, it appears. But even if an injunction were granted barring proactive shut-offs during conditions ripe for fire, the utility would retain the right to shut-down power when it’s lines are threatened by an actual fire. The utility could be held responsible for any damage caused by those lines if it did not shut off power, Shames said.

“SDG&E could be held liable, but the threat must be imminent,” he concluded. “The worse a fire is, the more the likelihood that SDG&E will shut off the power.”

East County residents: Please share your views on this in our comments section below and/or e-mail editor@eastcountymagazine.org, especially if you lost power or received a shut-off warning from SDG&E. Please include details such as what community you live in, what times of day your power was out, and how this impacted you. If anyone who lost power is on SDG&E’s list of people with oxygen or other medical needs, please advise whether SDG&E lived up to its promises to assure such individuals receive special assistance in a planned power outage.

Go here for the original article.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous November 4, 2011 at 3:31 pm

These people just want something to be angry about, and they don’t care much what it is.

Back in 2007, the Witch Creek fire was started by powerlines arcing in high winds. The subsequent public outrage is what caused SDG&E’s current shutdown plan to be made. Despite it being the responsible course of action, people are outraged about that too. But public safety outweighs an individuals desire to have uninterrupted electrical service. They’re just going to have to deal with it.

I’d wager these same people would be complaining if SDG&E hadn’t shut the power off, and a fire had started.


Frank Gormlie November 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Anon., not so sure. Why not take your view up with the East County Action committee and the folks who have been protesting the Powerlink project for years? It wasn’t the public outrage that caused SDG&E’s current plan, it was SDG&E. This is NOT “public safety” as you call it, but a callous disregard of life and property by a gigantic corporate utility. There were plenty of alternatives – oh, here’s one: proper maintenance of electrical power lines – the cause of the 2007 fire.


john November 5, 2011 at 3:52 am

Umm, you don’t need electricity for phone service.
This is why I keep a cheap phone as a backup in a drawer while I use my cordless-during that last 11 hour outage I pulled it out and it worked fine, it was a vital link to me from friends who called…. “your power out?”
“mine too!”
“when’s it coming back on?”
“nobody knows.”
Thank goodness we had that. :-)
It may be true that SDGE could maintain their infrastructure better and have more wind resistant poles and lines, however they know what’s out there now has limits and they did what they had to do.


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