One-hundred and eighty-three down and 5,317 more to go. That’s the number of miles of bare electrical wiring Southern California Edison has replaced with covered connectors — and how many thousands more it intends to replace by 2025. Edison reps are laying out the company’s power-shutoff program to cities across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where 280,000 acres were consumed by the Thomas Fire in December 2017, causing two deaths directly and, in the following January, 23 deaths in the Montecito debris flow. The goal of all the toil is to keep Edison equipment from starting another wildfire.
The miles of insulated distribution wire are part of Edison rep Rondi Guthrie’s presentation — to the Santa Barbara City Council last week and to Goleta’s council this evening — on the work the utility is undertaking along with its Public Safety Power Shutoff program that includes the installation of thousands of faster-flipping fuses and the deployment of a small army of tree trimmers. Priorities are organized by where electricity lines cross through the highest fire-danger zones identified on a map generated by the state Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), a map that is unrelated to fire department, weather service, and insurance maps. Preemptively, Guthrie explained it cost $3 million per mile to underground electric lines versus $430,000 per mile to replace equipment above ground, where it was also easier to inspect and maintain.
A Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. According to reports to the utilities commission, coordination with dozens of public agencies and meteorologists is intense as a PSPS is organized and then either carried out or canceled, depending on the winds that materialize. Of the six called by Edison since 2017, two panned out and affected a surprisingly small number of customers: 148, none with medical needs. The PSPS is tailored to affected circuits, Guthrie explained. For Santa Barbarans, whose electricity lines come across hilly high fire zones, a power shutoff might only affect areas with blasting winds, sparing other parts of the city.
Guthrie told Santa Barbara’s council that first responders and health agencies would be the first to receive notice of a possible outage, as well as citizens dependent on in-home medical devices, with warnings beginning as much as a week in advance. When the trigger is pulled, however, the first notice might be the lights going out. Verification of fire-sparking, near-gale conditions is made by Edison ground crews, on-pole meters, and meteorologists, with shutdown decisions made quickly at the executive level. Alerts come next.
Edison has been contacting customers by letter to explain how to sign up for the series of alerts — at SCE.com/psps or the app MySCE — Guthrie explained, as well as how to prepare for outages, which could last several days as crews inspect the lines before they power up again. City staff will also be holding informal coffees around town and meetings with homeowner groups, reported the city’s emergency manager Yoli McGlinchey and fire education specialist Liliana Encinas, including tips on battery or hand-crank radios, and solar-powered chargers. The city has also been examining its supply of generators, said Public Works chief Rebecca Bjork, and its needs at major traffic intersections and water pump and lift stations.