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For utility, cutting power could prevent fires and save lives -- and costs

SAN FRANCISCO-- Maggie Leavitt loves living in the mountainous backcountry of San Diego County. She could do, however, without the blackouts.

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David R. Baker
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO-- Maggie Leavitt loves living in the mountainous backcountry of San Diego County. She could do, however, without the blackouts.

Particularly when her local utility company cuts the power on purpose.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. shuts down its power lines when weather conditions pose a high risk of starting or spreading a wildfire. The practice began after the utility's lines, blasted by a 2007 windstorm, sparked three fires that together killed two people, destroyed more than 1,300 homes and cost SDG&E more than $2 billion.

Although the company calls shutting off power a last resort, it happens often enough that Leavitt, the retired manager of the county Resource Conservation District, keeps a spreadsheet. In December, for example, her Descanso ranch lost electricity on 10 days, including one five-day stretch.

Leavitt has a generator. But for those who don't, she said, a blackout isn't just a question of losing lights.

She and her neighbors all get water from their own wells, and the pumps need electricity. Without power, food goes bad in the fridge, and the nearest supermarket may also end up in the dark. Gas stations shut down, which in an extended blackout means her generator may run out of fuel.

``I know the dangers of fire,'' said Leavitt, who lost two of her outbuildings in a 2003 blaze. ``It's a choice you make to live in the backcountry. But you don't make the choice to go without power, without water. ... They're not doing this to protect us. They're doing this to protect themselves from lawsuits.''

It's an experience Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers may soon share.

The utility, California's largest, long resisted the idea of preemptive blackouts, given the problems they can cause. October's deadly Wine Country wildfires changed that. This month, the utility notified more than half a million of its customers -- those served by power lines that run through high-fire-risk areas -- that they may lose electricity if weather conditions turn dangerous, with low humidity and high winds.

PG&E representatives say they know this won't be a popular step. But now that state investigators have blamed PG&E's power lines for triggering many of the October fires during a windstorm, they say an intentional power failure is better than a raging blaze.

``We are doing everything we can to let everyone know that this is a possibility,'' said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo. ``People need to think about what they'll do if this happens.''

While PG&E describes the move as a matter of public safety, perhaps even life and death, it could also shield the company from financial harm.

PG&E warned investors last week that it will take a $2.5 billion charge against earnings this quarter to cover anticipated losses from lawsuits generated by the October fires. And PG&E executives said the company's liability could, in the end, run much higher. At least 2,700 homeowners, businesses and local government agencies have sued PG&E over the damage and deaths caused by the flames.

The utility, which serves most of Northern and Central California, has set up a web page asking customers how they'd like to be notified of shutoffs in advance: by phone, text or email. They can also register for the warnings by calling 866-743-6589. The web page lets them enter their address to see if they're in an area that could be affected.

Neither PG&E nor SDG&E use a set formula to determine when and where to shut down power lines, a process they call de-energization.

Instead, they keep an eye on multiple factors that, together, can fuel fires. Temperature, wind speed, humidity and the dryness of vegetation all play a part. SDG&E uses data from a network of 170 weather stations scattered across its territory, but it also includes field observations from its employees, said spokeswoman Allison Torres.

``Are they seeing a lot of debris flying?'' she said. ``That sort of intel goes into making the decision.''

Based on those observations, as well as the forecast, the utility will decide whether to shut down specific circuits. It blasts out automated phone calls, texts and emails to its customers on those circuits, warning that the power could go out. (Leavitt says the messages don't always get through.) The utility also identifies customers who have electrically powered medical devices at home -- they pay a special rate for their electricity -- and has a representative call them.

``If that doesn't work, we'll send someone there,'' Torres said.

Once the electricity goes out, SDG&E won't restart a power line until it has been visually inspected by the utility's employees. That can take time, particularly if winds are still strong enough to keep helicopters grounded.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, SDG&E shut down 28 power line circuits from Dec. 4 through Dec. 12 last year, blacking out 14,000 customers in the eastern portion of San Diego County. Another round of shutoffs happened Dec. 14 and 15, hitting 650 customers.

The practice infuriates some residents -- and their local officials. While they understand the importance of stopping fires, they note that it's impossible to know if a blackout actually prevented one.

``Businesses lost money for no reason, and to get the power back on took days,'' said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the rural mountain communities east of San Diego. The blackouts, she said, are particularly difficult, even dangerous, in an area where resident rely on pumping their own wells for water.

``I think citizens need to become outraged by this,'' Jacob said.

She has urged the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate SDG&E's use of preemptive blackouts. Instead, the commission recently proposed that PG&E and Southern California Edison largely follow SDG&E's procedures if they plan to shut down their own lines.

There are precautions homeowners can take if they know a blackout is coming. They can make sure mobile phones and laptops are fully charged (assuming they're in an area with cell phone coverage). They can stockpile water and food that doesn't require refrigeration. They can park their cars outside their garages, since garage-door openers won't work.

``We're urging our customers to prepare for a multiday outage,'' Paulo said. ``It's just being prepared and having a plan that's going to work for your family.''

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