Subdivision in Running Springs, Calif., burned, but new fire protections are being considered.
AP / Wideworld
Subdivision in Running Springs, Calif., burned, but new fire protections are being considered.

The hardest-hit area is San Diego County, where five separate fires caused all seven fatalities and burned more than 1,050 homes. The emergency prompted locally-based Kleinfelder Inc. to stay closed on Oct. 22 as half of its 140-person office staff were evacuated, says Lori Cathcart, vice president and office manager. No employees were injured, but one lost his home, she adds. Others faced “close calls,” Cathcart says.

Fires forced San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to turn off the vital 500-kV Southwest Powerlink, which feeds power from Arizona into San Diego County, for four days while crews battled flames. “It was taken down on [Oct. 21] for safety reasons so that firefighters could begin fighting the fire safely,” says utility spokeswoman Jennifer Briscoe.

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The line’s loss was compounded on Oct. 24, when two of three 230-kV transmission lines in northern San Diego County tripped in and out of service at least 25 times. The lines link Southern California Edison and SDG&E at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Losing power left the San Diego area hanging onto the western grid by only one 230-kV line. “At one point, we were an energy island with just local energy,” says Briscoe. She says SDG&E lost 250 MW of power on Oct. 24 and averted a power crunch by immediately reenergizing the Southwest Powerlink.

In all, Briscoe says fires burned 1,555 utility poles, 60 transformers and 35 miles of overhead wire. She says SDG&E, which has yet to release damage estimates, has marshaled 750 employees, along with 475 mutual-aid workers, to repair and replace equipment.

As of Oct. 30, SDG&E had restored power to 94% of 80,000 customers affected by the fires. Utility officials were expected to have power restored to almost all customers by early November.

Water-supply systems, normally re-sistant to fire damage, were impacted by power loss this time, says Dennis Lamb, director of engineering and operations at Vallecitos Water District, San Marcos. Pump-station SCADA controls were disrupted, but emergency backup power was available to maintain operations, he says.

However, in the northern San Diego County city of Ramona, 35,000 people were without drinking water for a week after flames burned power lines into the city’s pump station on Oct. 23. “The fire destroyed the power lines, but our pump station was fine,” says Tim Stanton, district engineer with Ramona Water District. Stanton says the no-drinking order was issued when low water pressure brought the possibility of contamination.

State health officials lifted the order Oct. 30 after reviewing water tests. Water is running at full capacity, which is about 12 mgd, pumped through a 30-in.-diameter pipe and an 18-in.-diameter pipe.

Despite the devastation, officials are praising use of so-called shelter-in-place development approaches that may have saved homes in some areas from fire damage. The program, developed in Australia, uses defensive measures such as fire sprinklers, noncombustible roofs and irrigated, fire-resistant plantings to protect structures and allow homeowners to avoid evacuation.

irefighters are getting a handle on fires that have scorched 518,000 acres of Southern California since Oct. 21, causing seven deaths and evacuation of more than 500,000 people. Flames destroyed 2,007 homes in seven counties, from Ventura to San Diego. By Oct. 30, all but seven of nearly three dozen fires to hit the region were contained, but controversy still simmers over a developing design and land-use approach to protect structures against encroaching flames. But not all believe the concept is a good one. Preston Lewis, president of Infrastructure Engineering Corp., Poway, believes it will encourage risky overdevelopment in rural, fire-prone areas.