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PUC rejects San Diego utility plan to turn off back-country power during high winds

September 10, 2009 | 11:51 am

The Public Utility Commission today voted 4-1 to reject a plan by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to turn off power to back-country areas during times of high winds and low humidity to avoid a repeat of the 2007 fires that roared through the county.

Commissioners said the company had not proved that its plan would decrease the chances of fire. They urged the company to continue working to decrease the fire threats posed by its overhead wires and to develop a new  plan.

PUC member Rachelle Chong said she was influenced by the fact that the SDG&E plan was opposed by the San Diego Sheriff's Department, Cal-Fire and the county Office of Emergency Services.

Any new plan, if the company wants PUC support, should have "more support and confidence from these first-responders," Chong said.

Opponents said the shutoff would endanger back-country residents by leaving them without electricity needed, among other things, to pump water onto small fires to keep them from spreading.

The company said the plan would have only been used sparingly and with advance notice to customers. Some 17 areas, with 60,000 customers, were targeted for shutoff when humidity was low and winds hit a sustained rate of 35 mph or gusts up to 50 mph.

Three fires that destroyed 1,500 homes and burned more than 200,000 acres in October 2007 were blamed on sparking wires knocked to the ground by high Santa Ana winds.

The company wanted PUC backing as the state enters the 2009 fire season.

Opponents, including the Board of Supervisors, said SDG&E was more interested in limiting its liability than in protecting back-country residents. The company has agreed to pay $740 million to insurance companies to cover payments to their policy holders for the 2007 fires.

Despite the PUC rejection, the company still has the authority to turn off power in emergency situations, PUC member John Bohn said. The difference, he noted, is that without PUC backing, the company does not have decreased liability for fire damages.

"There are risks associated with living in the back-country as opposed to downtown San Diego," Bohn said at the PUC meeting, held in San Francisco.

PUC member Dian M. Grueneich urged the company to redouble its efforts to replace wooden poles with metal, control vegetation near overhead lines, and generally "harden" its system against high winds and fire.

 The 2007 fires began in the rural part of northeastern San Diego County and then swept into the city limits, destroying homes in the pricey neighborhoods of Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo. The San Diego City Council supported the SDG&E plan.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego