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Fire crews work to put out hot spots in a Fallbrook community that was hit by the Lilac Fire. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When there’s wind out in Julian, it can kick up more breathing problems for Libby Pounds’ 3-year-old twins. Each night, they get treatment from an electronic breathing machine.

But now there’s another problem. When the wind kicks up, San Diego Gas & Electric, worried that its equipment may start a fire, has been shutting off power.

When the power is off and the breathing machines are useless, Pounds doesn’t know what to do for Noah and Weston, who were born premature.

“We don’t really have family we can stay with,” she said. “So does that mean we pay for a hotel so our kids can have breathing treatment?”

The power shutoffs are just one part of SDG&E’s fire prevention efforts, which stem from the catastrophic damage the company helped cause during the 2007 firestorm that burned hundreds of homes and killed two people. Since then, the company has spent $1.5 billion on equipment upgrades and more advanced weather forecasting.

The company isn’t confident that’s enough, though, especially when the weather turns hot, windy or dry. So SDG&E is now methodically killing power when it sees or predicts conditions ripe for fire.

The company has turned off the power for a total of three weeks during the past two years, according to regulatory filings. The largest series of shutoffs happened last November, while the Camp Fire raged in Northern California and similarly dangerous conditions blanketed Southern California. Over 20,000 customers lost power for up to eight days.

But, of course, there wasn’t a major fire and they kept their homes.

SDG&E’s shutoff plans are considered a model for the state’s other major utilities, especially since Pacific Gas & Electric equipment helped ignite the Camp Fire last year. State utility regulators just gave PG&E the green light to follow SDG&E’s example, which means there could even be blackouts in San Francisco under certain conditions.

SDG&E’s equipment hasn’t started a fire that resulted in significant property damage since 2007, but the company believes it’s only a matter of time before another fire happens.

When the next major fire strikes, the flames will almost certainly start and spread through rural San Diego. About 500,000 people live in unincorporated parts of the county. Many are in small towns, like Julian, Alpine and Valley Center. The rest are in small places like Buckman Springs, Japatul Valley, Hellhole Canyon and Oak Grove.

There, sometimes outside of cell phone reception, people are especially vulnerable when the power is off. They depend on power to pump water out of wells, they depend on power to know what is going on and, like Pounds’ family, they depend on power to run medical equipment.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a longtime critic of SDG&E, represents many of those places and argues that power company officials, of all people, don’t appreciate how important power is in those places.

“By pushing for shutoffs, SDG&E is trying to cover its liability rear end for its failure to fully harden its backcountry power lines and other infrastructure,” she said in a statement.

The company began talking about shutoffs shortly after the 2007 fires. The California Public Utilities Commission at first rejected the company’s plans but eventually OK’d shutoffs that protect public safety.

SDG&E began talking more about shutoffs in 2017, a decade after the 2007 fires. The CPUC was about to deny the company’s request to make ratepayers reimburse the company’s shareholders for hundreds of millions of dollars in wildfire-related liabilities. One company executive said in late September 2017 that the company would “re-evaluate” the standards it uses to shut off power to people in San Diego’s backcountry during fire conditions.

After that threat, the company stepped up its shutoff game. By the end of 2017, it had shut off power three times citing fire risk, including one blackout that affected 14,000 customers and lasted over a week for some of them. During that blackout, wind did damage company equipment, just like it did during a five-day shutoff last November that left 21,000 customers in the dark.

John Grisafi, a retired Caltrans land surveyor who lives in Guatay, said he appreciates SDG&E’s caution. He knows people might lose a refrigerator full of food when there’s an outage, but it’s better than another fire.

“It’s not a perfect world out here,” he said. “If we were down in the city, there’s more infrastructure down there and more response, but living out in the boondocks basically, it’s part of life out here.”

Other East County residents feel like they’re being punished because SDG&E can’t or won’t do enough to prevent its equipment from causing a fire.

“I can understand why PG&E can be stretched a little thing to take care of their lines, I don’t understand why SDG&E is,” said Jerry Cruson, a former county planner who lives in Julian. PG&E’s vast service territory is 17 times larger than SDG&E’s.

The 2003 Cedar Fire burned Cruson’s previous home. Now, he has sprinklers in his house. But they don’t work when the power is out because he needs a pump to bring water up to the hill he lives on.

SDG&E now has one of the most advanced weather systems in the world, along with a series of cameras that scan the county for smoke.

Chief Joe Napier of the Valley Center Fire Protection District said the forecasting comes in handy. He also praised SDG&E for targeting its shutoffs. While the company has shut off power to 10,000 or 20,000 customers at a time, one shutoff last fall only affected 19 customers.

“They are not taking a wide-brush swath and not shutting off power to a large number of people who don’t need their power shut off,” Napier said.

The company’s other big fire-related expense is so-called equipment “hardening,” like the 18,000 wood poles it replaced with steel poles. Regulators gave the company the green light to spend over $400 million on pole replacements. The company said the poles can better withstand high winds and won’t burn.

The pole replacement program isn’t a be-all, end-all, though.

Gregory Dohm, a Pine Hills resident, said SDG&E came through and replaced some steel poles, but there’s still some wood poles on his property. And his power is still getting shut off sometimes.

“Our family has been up there since 1970 and we’ve always had high winds and it’s nothing new, and of course they have new poles up there, but they still shut the power down and it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said the poles are meant to withstand high wind – but that doesn’t mean SDG&E will leave the power on when there are gusts that might spread a fire. Instead, the stronger poles are less likely to be damaged, so the company can turn the power back on faster when the winds have died down.

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the town of Guatay.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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