Critics Decry Anti-Fire Blackouts

Times Staff Writer

Some residents of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains are unhappy about a new fire-prevention policy in which Southern California Edison may intentionally shut off electric power in instances of high winds and low humidity.

A spokesman for the utility, Steve Conroy, said Monday that the bark beetle infestation, which has killed hundreds of thousands of trees in the mountains, has increased the possibility that dead trees could be pushed onto Edison lines by heavy winds and spark fires.

Conroy said warnings of intentional blackouts were sent Saturday, using automatic phone calls, to 30,000 homes in the mountain resorts in response to a weather forecast that included windy conditions. Actual conditions, however, did not reach the point where power had to be turned off, he said.

"We face unprecedented conditions, which mandate these protective operating procedures," he said.

The prospect of such blackouts coincides with other interruptions in electric services as residents begin rebuilding hundreds of homes lost in last month's Old fire.

Edison said repairs of lines damaged by falling trees during the wildfires would require additional blackouts as long as 24 hours. The Old fire damaged or downed an estimated 1,500 of Edison's power poles and about 220 transformers.

Several mountain residents complained about the new rules last week at a Lake Arrowhead hearing called by state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi on consequences of the wildfires.

The residents were especially concerned about people with medical conditions that require a steady source of electricity.

An Arrowhead resident, Steve Sellers, asked whether state or federal disaster authorities might help needy residents buy home generators to supply backup power when necessary.

Garamendi suggested that such people call their legislative representatives to find out whether programs exist now or could be mandated for this purpose.

A woman who lives in Cedar Glen told Garamendi that she requires an electronic device to help her breathe. She expressed concern for her health, should high winds force a power cutoff.

Because of the possibility of snow, residents fear that repairing power lines could take months. Wayne Austin, general manager of the Lake Arrowhead Resort, said local businesses would suffer if the power interruptions lasted that long.

Conroy said that, under a mandate from the Public Utilities Commission, Edison has embarked on a five-year effort to cut down 300,000 dead or dying trees that might imperil the utility's lines.

At least six beetle-infested trees have fallen on power lines since the fires, and workers are removing between 300 and 500 trees a day, he said.

To prevent trees that are being downed from endangering homes, cranes are used to support the trees until they can be eased to the ground.

During the fires, Conroy said, Edison shut off power in four communities for between 24 and 72 hours.

He identified these as Angeles Oaks, Barton Flats, Forest Falls and Idyllwild.

In some of those instances, the cutoff was more a protective move than one forced by the advance of fires, he said.

Conroy said that, to avoid inconvenience or danger to residents, Edison would try to warn of impending blackouts.

He noted that Santa Ana winds -- the kind of weather conditions that might warrant power shutoffs -- occur mainly in the fall.

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