Southern California Wildfire Threat Prompts Pre-Emptive Power Outages

Southern California wildfire threat power outages
Smoke and fire in Southern California on December 5, 2017. Credit: Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

The Santa Ana winds whipped through parts of Southern California at 88 mph last week, spreading wildfires. Dangerously dry and windy conditions prompted San Diego Gas & Electric to notify 170,000 customers that they might lose power as the utility sought to prevent its power lines from starting new wildfires, the Mercury News reported.

On Thursday, SDG&E preemptively cut electricity to 12,000 customers. “We recognize the inconvenience to our customers and appreciate their patience,” Joe Britton, a spokesman for the utility, told the newspaper.

New hot spots have been springing up around Southern California, intensified by historically high winds. Wildfires shut down parts of Interstate 405 and halted filming in mountainous areas of Los Angeles, Bloomberg reported. Officials are investigating the causes of these recent blazes.

SDG&E’s pre-emptive power cutting move is challenging for commercial customers. Although it reduces the risk of inadvertently sparking fires that could kill people and destroy buildings, the loss of power inevitably affects business operations.

“Stores have to close. Traffic lights, elevators, and garage-door openers don’t work,” Paul Rogers wrote in the Mercury News. “People who work from home can lose power to their computers. Water pumps may not work.”

On Thursday, SDG&E cut power to the center of Julian, California, a town with a population of around 1,500 in San Diego County. However, the Julian Journal reported that the utility dispatched a generator for the downtown area. Rick and Brenda Campbell, who own a nature store there, told the paper that they were without electricity for two hours until the generator was connected.

Rogers expects preemptive shut-offs to be a growing trend in the state, in part because the California Public Utilities Commission requires that utilities pay for costs when power lines cause wildfires.

SDG&E, which provides energy service to 3.6 million people and is owned by Sempra Energy, asked the commission whether they could recover $379 million from ratepayers over deadly 2007 wildfires sparked by its power lines. At the end of November, the CPUC voted 5-0 to deny the request, saying the utility “did not reasonably manage and operate its facilities,” according to the San Diego Tribune.

“Failure of power lines and other electrical equipment has regularly ranked among the top three singular sources of California wildfires for the last several years,” LA Times reporter Ivan Penn wrote.

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