USA–– This summer, San Diego firefighters got a preview of what could turn out to be a very busy fall fire season. The heat wave that brought blistering temperatures and muggy conditions to the coast and inland valleys also spawned hundreds of lightning strikes in local mountains that sparked several major brushfires in the county, including the Chihuahua and Shockey fires.
While CAL FIRE coordinates regional fire suppression efforts, fighting wildfires is a collaborative effort that includes equipment and personnel from San Diego County Fire Authority, other public safety agencies, and from private sector partners like San Diego Gas & Electric. In the years since the devastating fires of 2003 and 2007, SDG&E has worked closely with community leaders and collaborated with fire agencies and other first responders to help raise awareness about emergency preparedness in a region plagued by hot, dry Santa Ana winds and the ever-present threat of wildfires.
To get better real-time information about the effect of weather on its operations, SDG&E blanketed the county with 140 utility-owned weather stations that track temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and even measures the moisture level of fuel in high fire-risk areas while providing updated readings every 10 minutes. SDG&E shares this data with the public and the National Weather Service. During the recent Chihuahua fire, SDG&Es meteorologists consulted with CAL FIREs fire-behavior analyst while SDG&Es weather data was used to map out the likely spread of the flames.
SDG&E is an industry leader in the innovative use of technology to improve the safety and reliability of its electrical system. Not long ago, the utility unveiled its Mobile Field Command Trailers, which can serve as virtual operation centers in an emergency providing Internet connectivity and a Wi-Fi hot spot that anyone in the vicinity can use to communicate wirelessly. SDG&E rolled out two of the Field Command centers to the remote site of the Chihuahua Fire: one to coordinate communications with its crews, and a second to support cellular communications for firefighters on the fire line.
The San Diego County Fire Authority is working with SDG&E and UC San Diego engineers and IT specialists on a plan to leverage existing communications networks to ensure that as many as 70 back country fire stations in communities with the greatest risk of brushfires will have Internet connectivity. With access to the Internet to augment existing radios, fire officials estimate they could trim up to a minute off a response time a minute that could be the difference between a spot fire and a wind-whipped inferno.
SDG&E has replaced 1,650 wooden transmission poles with steel, making them stronger and more fire-resistant, and plans to replace all of the transmission poles with steel in the highest fire-risk areas of the county over the next five years. The utility also has undergrounded some overhead lines and added equipment to keep the lights on in the city centers of Ramona, Julian, Fallbrook and Valley Center even if power goes out in other areas of those communities.
When the utility bought a helitanker to build the Sunrise Powerlink, SDG&E offered it to the County and City of San Diego for fire suppression as needed and firefighters indeed called for its help, especially during the Shockey Fire. The utilitys ongoing public education and outreach efforts include more than $125,000 in training grants for voluntary emergency response groups. SDG&E has proved to be a valuable partner in the collective effort to keep our communities safe and better prepared.