Image: Ramona, Calif.
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Main Street in Ramona, Calif., is inside the zone proposed by San Diego Gas and Electric to cut off power should a wildfire near powerlines in that area.
updated 9/8/2009 7:33:43 PM ET 2009-09-08T23:33:43

A San Diego utility has come up with an unusual tactic to prevent the spread of wildfires this fall: Turn off the electricity to a vast swath of homes before the flames arrive. It says such a measure could have prevented three major fires that devastated the region two years ago.

But critics call it a bad idea that will cause a number of crucial systems to fail immediately or within hours, such as life-critical medical devices, water pumps, phones, garage door openers, traffic lights. Without generators, people may be forced to flee or, even worse, start fires by using candles, lanterns and barbecues.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote as early as Thursday on San Diego Gas & Electric's plan to cut off power to 60,000 homes and businesses in dry, windy weather. The showdown comes as the state braces for another season of dry, fierce winds that can topple power lines and set off wildfires.

The plan, if approved, may be introduced elsewhere. Edison International's Southern California Edison had one in 2003 that targeted about 30,000 homes and it cut power once, in the tiny community of Idylwild. A spokesman, Steve Conroy, says the Los Angeles-area utility has no cutoff plan now but is watching the San Diego decision closely.

The debate is playing out as an arsonist-sparked wildfire in Los Angeles continues to rage after killing two firefighters, destroying 78 homes and burning 251 square miles over the last two week.

Power lines cause a tiny percentage of wildfires, but have wrought enormous damage.

A sycamore limb fell on a San Diego Gas & Electric line to spark one of Southern California's biggest fires in 2007, according to the utility. Others were started when two SDG&E lines lashed and a Cox Communications cable line struck one of the utility's wires.

Utility has paid out $740 million
SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, has paid dearly — $740 million in legal settlements with affected homeowners, with more claims pending. This month, it asked regulators for a rate increase, saying its insurance premiums soared after the fires.

The utility wants to stop only the biggest fires, said Mike Niggli, chief operating officer of Sempra's utilities. It estimates there will be one or two outages a year that affect between 8,000 and 10,000 customers.

Track U.S. wildfires"When you're in potential for a catastrophic situation, we feel we're going to do our part to make San Diego safe," he said.

SDG&E would cut power if five weather conditions are met, including gauges like humidity in the air and moisture in sticks and twigs. Critics say one of the conditions — wind speeds as low as 30 mph — is far too low to trigger a shutdown.

Supporters include the San Diego City Council — no surprise considering the nation's eighth-largest city is outside the shutoff-zone and fires roared from chaparral-covered mountains into the heart of the city twice since 2003.

Opposition is fierce in the quaint communities that would lose electricity, an area that rings San Diego through avocado groves, apple orchards and horse ranches near the Mexican border.

Town activist: Plan 'shifts the cost'
Ramona, an unincorporated city of about 35,000 people north of San Diego that was among the hardest hit by fires in 2003 and 2007, falls entirely within the shutoff zone.

The town barely sits outside San Diego's sprawl of modern office parks and new tract homes. The wide Main Street with chains including 7-Eleven and Denny's feels dated. Dairies, chicken farms and large lots are signs of its agricultural heritage.

Several residents say the utility is shirking responsibility to protect its infrastructure from fire and object to its plea that it be indemnified for any power shutdown. The utility notes that it is improving its system — replacing some wood poles with steel, planting some wires underground — but critics insist the shutoff plan goes too far.

"It's a very cheap way of not having to upgrade the system," said community activist Joseph Mitchell. "It shifts the cost and the risk from them to the public."

Mary Wilder says she may get an asthma attack if her electronic breathing device fails. She walks with a cane and lives alone on an $800 monthly disability check, not enough to make her even think of buying a generator.

Wilder, who lost her home in 2003, shrugs off the utility's offer to shuttle disabled customers to an evacuation center if the power is shut and provide debit cards up to $250.

"Having to leave your home because your electricity is turned off is just ridiculous," said Wilder, 62.

Ramona Senior Care Inc., whose past residents have relied on oxygen tanks, priced generators at $4,000, said Haley Palmbach, an administrator. If it buys one, it may have to raise prices for its 12 residents or reduce staff.

Cary Coleman, chief of a volunteer fire department that serves about 4,000 people outside Ramona, worries that he won't be able to find pumps to replenish his four fire engines and truck with water, even though the utility offered to create a pool of portable generators for water districts if the power is shut off.

Some residents are more sympathetic to the utility.

"It could work," said Scott Mattson, 47, who is horrified by memories of the five-hour traffic jam to leave Ramona during the 2007 fires. Still, he said the plan is far too cautious for setting wind speeds as low as 30 mph to trigger a shutdown.

Wayne Chamon, owner of City Barber Shop, was nonchalant.

"It's no big deal, I'll just take another day off," he said. "If it's two or three days, then I'll take two or three days off."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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