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SDG&E wildfire prevention policies under scrutiny

Recent deadly and destructive wildfires in California have people wondering if it could happen again here in San Diego County.

SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) - Recent deadly and destructive wildfires in California have people wondering if it could happen again here in San Diego County.

Experts agree SDG&E is ahead of the curve when it comes to wildfire safety but people living in San Diego’s back country believe more can be done to protect the public.

Joseph Mitchell has his own house in order when it comes to wildfire safety.

He is a wildfire safety consultant who has installed water sprayers on his home off Mussey Grade Road in Ramona.

Mitchell is preparing to submit written testimony in Sacramento about statewide protocols for shutting off electricity in the back country as a way of preventing wildfires.

“Ideally, you don't want to have to shut off the power,” said Mitchell.

“We need to build to a standard where the equipment can withstand the weather that we expect in San Diego County,” he said.

Last year, SDG&E shut off power four times in the back country during windy conditions in an effort keep its power lines from sparking wildfires; a practice that Mitchell said can be risky.

“You have difficulties in evacuation when the lights are off. You have people unable to communicate, unable to report a fire, unable to know what fires are coming. People are breaking out barbeque grills and candles, firing up generators that haven't run in five years, all under extreme weather conditions,” Mitchell said.

SDG&E’s largest power shutdown last year was in November when 25,000 customers were without power for up to five days.

After the wind storm died down, inspectors went out and took photographs of damage to the power system.

They found downed trees and broken power lines, which had to be fixed before the power could be turned back on.

Critics say the damage that inspectors found is proof that SDG&E’s system is not built strong enough to withstand high winds, and more tree maintenance needs to be done.

Not surprisingly SDG&E disagrees.

The utility’s director of fire science, Brian D’Agostino, said SDG&E has a state-of-the-art weather center that monitors wind speeds countywide, as well as a network of live weather camera to spot fires.

The company has spent a billion dollars replacing old wood poles with new steel ones, including SDG&E poles in the area where the Witch Creek fire started in 2007.

SDG&E customers typically foot the bill for system upgrades and preventative measures, which include building a system to withstand ever-higher wind speeds.

“In some cases, lines are built to withstand wind gusts over 56 miles per hour. In other areas 85 and now we're developing over 100 miles an hour (systems),” said D’Agostino.

“So, the lines can be extremely resilient but a lot of what that doesn't prevent is things flying through the air,” said D’Agostino.

Bottom line, SDG&E said, wildfires sparked during extreme weather conditions can never be completely avoided.

“The reality of Santa Ana winds is that they're always here and always will be associated with wildfires across Southern California. The safest option for the community at some points is de-energization,” said D’Agostino.

But Mitchell, the Ramona wildfire safety expert, said SDG&E needs to be more forthcoming with solutions and the associated costs.

“You tell us what the solutions are and what they cost and then let the public make the decision about whether we pay SDG&E to upgrade its system so it doesn't have to shut off power,” Mitchell said.

The California Public Utilities Commission will be holding hearings later this month to create statewide protocols for the de-energization of power lines to prevent wildfires.

The first prehearing is set for February 19.