Friday, July 24, 2009 | The San Diego region understands the destructive effects of wildfires all too well. In 2003, and again in 2007, catastrophic fires took lives, homes, and memories from our families, friends, and neighbors. Even as we recover from these tragedies and take steps to prevent future devastation, we recognize certain inherent handicaps. The area’s population is growing and spreading deeper into the backcountry, our summer season is lengthening, and drought conditions are worsening.

Finances impact our ability to prepare for the inevitable — another fire. As state legislators close the unprecedented budget gap, we expect they will place an additional burden on the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and City of San Diego taxpayers. However, budget challenges do not lessen our responsibility to protect life and property throughout the county.

In our efforts to be proactive, we have developed some innovative solutions to help prevent fires from starting. Monday, the San Diego City Council will consider one of these ideas when they vote on a resolution in support of San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan. Prevention is a critical component of any fire response strategy, and SDG&E’s plan deserves our support.

Though power lines rarely cause wildfires, they have been responsible for three of Southern California’s four largest wildfires. Combined, these fires burned 478,627 acres and destroyed more than 2,100 structures. If power had not been running through the lines, those particular fires would not have started as they did. An emergency power shut-off plan would intentionally stop power delivery for short periods of time to specific areas in the back country — where the majority of wildfires start — when five conditions exist: 1) moisture level in “non-living” materials is 10 percent or less; 2) moisture level in living plants and bushes is 75 percent or less; 3) relative humidity is 20 percent or less; 4) National Weather Service declares a Red Flag Warning; and 5) localized wind speeds at 10 meters high are 35 mph sustained or 55 mph gusts with 30 mph sustained winds. When these five conditions coexist, they constitute a “perfect storm” for fires.

Before the 2007 wildfires began, all five of the above-mentioned criteria existed before the Guejito and Rice fires. Obviously, it is impossible to determine whether a shut off plan would have prevented those fires and the resulting $1.5 billion of damage. However, it would certainly be prudent, going forward, to control potential risk factors where we can, taking every responsible precaution available.

The Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan would only be used as a last resort, impacting service to specific geographic areas, and affecting 8,000-10,000 residents, once or twice a year. Customers would receive advance notice of a planned outage, and accommodations would be made for those with special needs. We recognize that this plan might be undesirable for some SDG&E customers, yet also feel that their infrequent inconvenience must be sacrificed in the interest of general public safety.

The shut off plan has been endorsed by the Secretary Mike Chrisman of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees CalFire, the state’s agency responsible for fire protection. Deputy Director Anthony I. Perez of the California State Parks Department also supports the initiative. The mayors of cities that border the backcountry, including La Mesa, El Cajon and Escondido also support

the shut off plan.

Our financial challenges will not be overcome in the near future, and environmental realities are also likely to remain in place. Recognizing these truths, we must access and support opportunities that may minimize the risk of another catastrophic wildfire. SDG&E’s Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan may not be a perfect solution, but we are operating under imperfect conditions, and we need to protect ourselves by supporting this proactive effort.

Ben Hueso and Marti Emerald are members of the San Diego City Council.

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