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How San Diego's Utility Companies Are Working To Prevent Wildfires


Utility companies in California are trying to keep their powerlines from sparking wildfires. In Northern California, PG&E has been conducting massive blackouts as a preventative strategy. The utility company in San Diego is taking a different approach. Reporter Claire Trageser of member station KPBS explains.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It's bright and sunny out but dark as night inside Live Oak Market and Liquor, a small store in eastern San Diego County. Owner Matthew Nissou scans the aisles.

MATTHEW NISSUO: This all be losing here because it's hot now.

TRAGESER: His power was turned off by San Diego Gas & Electric as a precaution against wildfires. He's frustrated about losing $12,000 in frozen goods.

NISSUO: Plus the business today and yesterday.

TRAGESER: But he was one of only about 500 customers who lost power in a shutoff last month. In Northern California, PG&E cut power to more than 700,000 customers. The power companies call these public safety power shutoffs, and they've become the new normal across California with increased heat and wildfire danger. But in San Diego, the number of customers affected is much smaller. In six years, a combined total of only 68,000 customers have lost power. Limiting the size of shutoffs is a priority.

BRIAN D'AGOSTINO: Our meteorology team right now, of course, is kind of head down - getting ready for the upcoming event.

TRAGESER: Brian D'Agostino is SDG&E's of fire science and climate adaptation. On this day, he was worried about a hot and dry weekend with Santa Ana winds. He stands in front of five giant monitors, showing live mountaintop cameras and yellow, blue and red squiggles representing the utility's power lines.

D'AGOSTINO: These tools analyze all of the historical data and tell us, when do we have that type of day that can result in a catastrophic fire?

TRAGESER: SDG&E has overhauled its grid to minimize large-scale power shutoffs. Now they can make more surgical cuts to utility lines or reroute power so fewer customers are left in the dark. But it's not necessarily fair to compare the power company in the north with the power company in the south.

MICHAEL WARA: San Diego's utility serves just a quarter of the 16 million PG&E customers and over a much smaller area.

TRAGESER: Michael Wara is the director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University. He points out PG&E's terrain has more trees and is more densely populated. But, Wara says, it is fair in some ways. After SDG&E's powerlines started a massive fire in 2007, the utility began making changes.

WARA: PG&E could also have acted at the time, but they chose not to.

TRAGESER: For example, SDG&E set up weather stations long before PG&E did.

DIANNE JACOB: Are they better than in the north - the utilities in the north? Yeah, probably. But does that mean that they are the gold standard? Absolutely not.

TRAGESER: Dianne Jacob is a San Diego County supervisor. She says the utility made those changes too late.

JACOB: They're more interested in covering their liability rear end than they are about looking out for the best interests of those who have suffered losses and the rate payers.

TRAGESER: SDG&E counters the utility is aggressively making improvements. It hired a team of meteorologists after the 2007 fires to collect data and avoid massive shutoffs. That's a process that PG&E is just beginning now.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.