Following years of permitting and environmental review, San Diego Gas & Electric is poised to begin a massive project to replace thousands of power poles and transmission lines throughout Cleveland National Forest.
"We're going to spend over $600 million hardening and under-grounding about 150 miles of overhead lines," said David Geier, a utility vice president.
Nearly 2,000 wooden poles will be replaced with steel ones over the next five years in and near the forest. In addition, roughly 30 miles of overhead lines will be buried in sensitive areas such as the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
The 50-year special use permit authorized by the U.S. Forest Service — followed by a state permit allowing construction to begin — is designed to make it less likely that arcing power lines could start a wildfire, and to keep power poles from being destroyed should a fire blow through an area.
The construction includes the removal of 24 miles of existing power lines and 19 miles of access roads. Forest Supervisor William Metz said the construction would be done in a way that "minimizes impacts to wildlife habitat, scenery and water quality."
Plans call for replacing power lines that will run along the new, taller, fire-resistant steel poles that are capable of withstanding winds of up to 85 mph. The wooden poles — erected in the 1940s, '50s and '60s — are rated for winds of up to 56 mph.
Utility officials say the new poles will be capable of carrying thicker lines that will be spread farther apart, minimizing the chance that a tree limb or bird with a large wingspan could spark a fire.
The first segment of the work will take place in the southeast part of San Diego County near Campo, Cleveland National Forest utility coordinator Brad Aughinbaugh said. The project will cross public and private land.
Utility watchdogs and environmental groups initially fought the project, saying they feared the new poles could be used to string transmission lines capable of transporting energy from Sempra Energy facilities in Mexico and Arizona to Los Angeles. Sempra is SDG&E's parent company.
Officials for the utility have said that no such plans are in the works. If something like that were ever proposed, they said, the plans would have to go through the permitting process dictated by the state's Public Utility Commission.
The need to improve the energy distribution system in the backcountry came into focus in 2003 and 2007, when firestorms began in the rural parts of the county and barreled into more populated areas.
The 2007 Witch Creek fire and its companion blaze, the Guejito fire, killed two people and destroyed 1,141 homes and 509 outbuildings. Sparking power lines started each of the fires, which merged together into one massive blaze.
SDG&E, while not admitting liability and blaming Santa Ana winds for the degree of destruction, has paid out more than a billion dollars in claims to fire victims.
In 1970, the Laguna fire — which stood for decades as the largest in state history — was sparked by arcing power lines. Five people were killed and hundreds of homes destroyed in the blaze, which burned for weeks all the way from Sunrise Highway to El Cajon.
If a fire today were to follow the same footprint, thousands of homes could potentially burn because of all the development that has occurred in ares such as Alpine and Lakeside.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has said the Laguna area is one of the parts of the county of greatest concern because little has burned in the area in decades.