SDG&E shuts off electricity in fire danger areas, possible SCE link to Woolsey blaze ignition

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

Update, 13:48, 12 November 2018: SCE has begun proactive shutoffs, according to its website “due to dangerous high winds in Red Flag fire areas, SCE shut off power to roughly 50 customers in the Moorpark area at about 10:50 a.m. this morning”.

Much of California is under a red flag warning this morning. High winds and dangerously dry conditions could mean yet more wildfires, and more trouble for the three major fires already burning. The death toll from the Camp Fire in Butte County rose to 29 overnight, with hundreds of people still missing. At least two people died in the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles County. Both of those fires are largely uncontained, with high winds expected today and tomorrow.

So far, San Diego Gas and Electric is the only major Californian electric utility to begin large scale, proactive power cuts. It turned off electricity in and around eight communities in San Diego County last night and this morning, affecting ten thousand customers. Southern California Edison put dozens of communities on alert yesterday, but so far hasn’t reported turning off power proactively. PG&E hasn’t updated its proactive electric shut off notices since Friday.

A possible link between SCE and the start of the Woolsey fire surfaced yesterday. SCE filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday night, stating that there was an interruption to a high voltage line near the start of the blaze, two minutes before the first report of a fire came in…

Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m. Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m. Our personnel have not accessed the area to assess our facilities in the vicinity of where the fire reportedly began. At this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that SCE’s incident caused the fire – it might have been the other way around – but it raises the possibility. Cal Fire lists the causes of the Camp, Woolsey and the (smaller and largely contained) Hill fires as “under investigation”.

Beyond the human tragedy, there’s no reliable damage estimate yet. All that’s certain is that it’ll be in the billions of dollars, if not tens or hundreds of billions, range. Under California law, utilities are on the hook for the full cost of the damage, even if the blame is shared with others. A bill passed in the final days of the California legislature’s session in August – senate bill 901 – allowed some of that cost to be passed on to electric customers, but that’s only a partial solution.

The cost of maintaining utility pole routes will climb, which will drive up costs for the telecommunications companies that share those routes. And if telecoms lines are involved in the start of a fire – a loose cable wrapping around electric lines was blamed in a 2007 San Diego County fire – then telephone, cable and other broadband companies would be similarly liable for the damage done.

Governor Jerry Brown said “this is the new abnormal” in a press conference yesterday. That applies as much to California’s telecoms future as it does to everything else connected to these fires.