After $740M in Settlements, SDG&E Gets Aggressive

By Gene Cubbison
|  Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009  |  Updated 7:09 AM PDT
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Burned tree branches remain at a home that was destroyed by the Witch fire October 29, 2007 in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego.

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San Diego Gas and Electric rolled out an aggressive fire prevention and response program Tuesday, aimed at minimizing the prospect of catastrophic wildfires like those that ravaged the county in 2003 and 2007.

In Rancho Bernardo, more than 400 homes were destroyed or badly damaged in 2007 by fire traced to power lines that went down and sparked dry brush in hot, windy conditions.

SDG&E is on the hook for hundreds of millions in damages.

"Certainly the recent news of the fires in Los Angeles brings back some very un-fond memories of what we went through in 2003 and 2007,” said SDG&E spokesperson Debra Reed. ” And it stresses the criticality of us, as a region, being prepared."

SDG&E announced it's contracting with Fire Stop, a private firefighting agency that's worked for the U.S. Forest Service to provide several crews and trucks to deploy in key back country areas and roam elsewhere during major fire incidents.

They are also bringing in a fire-fighting helicopter that can drop 1,000 gallons of water or fire retardant to be replaced next year by a Sikorsky Sky Crane that's much bigger and more versatile.

Also, SDG&E is replacing hundreds of wooden poles with steel and undertaking a variety of other measures.

Critics say SDG&E should have been this proactive years, if not decades ago. They see all this motivated by having to pay $740 million in legal settlements stemming from 2007 and, the need for state regulators to approve a controversial emergency power shutoff plan in the back country, plus series of substantial rate hikes.

"I think the most frustrating part of this whole presentation is that first, SDG&E has proven itself adept at burning our back country. But now they're burning our money. And they're not telling us how much it's going to cost us," said Michael Shames with the Utility Consumers Action Network.

The California Public Utilities Commission meets Thursday in San Francisco to consider the company's emergency power shutoff plan and proposals related to its legal liabilities.

The shutoff plan is opposed by tens of thousands of back country residents, and the school and water districts, that serve them.

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