Watts or Wildfire

 

Here's a new angle on fire in the west: one large southern California utility is trying to convince ratepayers that some regions of its service area are too fire-prone for uninterrupted electricity. Or at least, that's the implication behind San Diego Gas and Electric's proposal to unplug portions of its grid when there's a high risk of fire; for example, when winds pick up or humidity levels drop beyond a certain point. According to spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp, the plan is an attempt to "address fire head on," but it also looks a lot like an effort to dodge liability. In 2007, arcing power lines and gusting Santa Ana winds stirred up a handful of big blazes, leaving San Diego Gas and Electric saddled with more than a hundred lawsuits, and potentially responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of damages. 

The utility's proposal has met with a mixed response -- a slightly mixed response. Mostly, the 130,ooo ratepayers who might be affected seem to consider the idea a terrible one. Here's a local paper's description of one public meeting:

There was even someone in the crowd who was neutral.

Shawneen Burdick, the president of the Valley Center Chamber of Commerce, who said she was representing herself, said, "I personally am still on the fence."

But most suggested the plan was a disaster in the making.

Scott Wayne of Black Canyon City, Ariz., a Marine whose father lives in the San Diego County backcountry, said the proposal was surprising given that one of the military's top strategies is to knock out electric systems.

"It bothers me that this is a planned disaster," Wayne said. "This is a tactic that we use against the enemy."

Residents have pointed out that unplugging the grid won't prevent all fires, and worry that if a fire does occur when the lines are dead they'll be caught without functioning water pumps, without electric light, and potentially without telephone, internet or cable service as well.

The plan has yet to be approved by California's Public Utility Commission, which will probably make a decision by mid summer. Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the commission said he couldn't think of another utility, in California or elsewhere, that had taken a similar step.