Monday, March 7, 2016

San Diego Gas & Electric: Leading the Way in Implementing the Cohesive Strategy (full article)

Serving 3.4 million people across 4,100 square miles in South Orange and San Diego Counties in California, San Diego Gas & Electric is no stranger to wildland fire issues.

The California Fire Sieges in October of both 2003 and 2007 killed 34 people, burned over 1.2 million acres, and 6,779 homes.  In addition to many other fires, these extremely destructive fires in San Diego County also destroyed miles of high voltage power lines and infrastructure, displaced tens of thousands of residents with no power and made one thing abundantly clear: San Diego Gas and Electric is a major stakeholder when it comes to wildland fire. 

The 2003 fires cost the utility company $30 million in damage to power lines and infrastructure from wildland fire.  In 2007, state investiga­tors found SDG&E equipment was responsible for three wildland fires, leading to billions of dollars in customer claims against the utility.

With the goal of trying to prevent another catastrophic wildland fire in its service area, in 2008, SDG&E started a fire prevention, education and protection program that has grown into a proactive fire prevention and vegetation manag­ement model for company and community success.

This strategic change in company philosophy and SDG&E’s leadership in these programmatic areas has created a remarkable list of accomplishments, which embody the principles and goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy).

The Cohesive Strategy is a philosophy: rooted in science and practice and dependent on collaborative, collective action to reduce the devastating impacts of wildland fire, across all lands, across all stakeholder groups – an “all hands, all lands” approach. The Cohesive Strategy promotes collaborative efforts and activities that lead to Resilient Landscapes, Fire Adapted Communities and a Safe and Effective Wildland fire Response.  It is not a new concept, or a program. It is a commitment to the doctrine that, as stakeholders, we all share responsibilities for managing our lands, protecting our natural, Tribal and cultural resources and making our communities safe and resilient for future generations. 

SDG&E has embraced the tenets and core philosophy of the Cohesive Strategy in numerous ways that have positively impacted utility investments and infrastructure, landscape resiliency, local communities in Orange and San Diego Counties and the wildland fire response in Southern California.

In the context of the Creating and Maintaining Resilient Landscapes, SDG&E is working collaboratively with a variety of partners to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildland fires through the following activities:

  • Construction of fuel breaks within utility corridors in collaboration with CAL FIRE and Native American tribes.  These fuel breaks, which vary in width depending on the topography and adjacent fuels typically average 200 feet in width, protect both company infrastructure and adjacent communities and afford an interruption in the continuity of wildland fuels for the containment of wildland fires.
  • Aggressive vegetation management of more than 400,000 trees within and adjacent to utility corridors in SDG&E’s service territory. More than 100,000 trees are trimmed annually to reduce “ladder fuels” that can carry flames into tree crowns and reduce vegetation-caused power outages.
  • Institution of the public awareness program “The Right Tree in the Right Place” which reduces the potential of tree-caused electrical outages and wildland fire incidents.
  • Annual clearing of vegetation from the bases of over 35,000 utility poles for fire prevention and defensible space.
  • Active treating of all noxious weeds within utility corridors, which significantly reduces wildland fire risk.  
  • Re-vegetation of all new utility line corridors and maintenance of existing corridors where ground disturbance occurs to avoid the encroachment of noxious weeds.
  • Coordination and participation with state and local agencies in prescribed fires adjacent to utility corridors, which protects utility infrastructure and adjacent communities.
  • Recognition by Arbor Day Foundation as a Treeline USAr utility.

SDGE is perhaps most proud of its work within local communities, fostering Fire Adapted Communities through the following activities: 
  • Offering $900,000 in grant funding to date (December 2015) for community defensible space projects, and wildland fire prevention and education efforts in communities near and adjacent to utility corridors and to California Fire Safe Councils.
  • SDG&E is an executive board member of the Greater San Diego County Fire Safe Council, providing leadership on prevention, education and fuels treatment and coordinating these efforts with local communities.

In addition to the vegetation management and community support, SDG&E also lends resources to support a Safe and Effective Wildland fire Response in Southern California:

  • Providing a Type 1 helicopter for a three- to four-month period each year to be used by all wildland fire agencies as needed for suppression.
  • Contracting with ten Type 6 engines to support company fire prevention and interagency response within the SDG&E service area.
  • Training at least 1,000 people from the interagency community annually in power line and electricity safety during wildland fires.
  • Participation in and providing matching grants for the Forest Area Safety Teams (FAST).
  • Providing 24/7 Emergency Fire Coordination and Liaison Officer for wildland fires that threaten company assets.
  • Installation of more than 170 fire weather stations throughout SDG&E’s service territory (mainly in the high fire-risk areas) that provide real-time field data on wind speed, temperature and humidity updated every 10 minutes. The data is available online for the National Weather Service and the general public which allows for another avenue for preparedness education.
  • Collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and UCLA researchers to develop the Santa Ana Wildland Fire Threat Index (SAWTI). This tool rates the potential of a forecasted strong wind event to contribute to a major fire, giving fire agencies, emergency responders and the public vital information so they can take appropriate preparedness actions.
  • Development of an internal Fire Potential Index (FPI) to determine whether and where to pre-stage crews to be able to respond quickly to reduce the fire hazard to the electrical system and customers.
  • Providing three, full-time meteorologists for both company and interagency use to predict adverse weather conditions.
  • Providing corporate sponsorship to the L-580 Leadership course offered in February 2016.
  • Providing live fuel moisture sampling to be used by the interagency wildland fire community in the determination of daily wildland fire risk.
  • Member of San Diego County Fire Chief’s Association.

SDG&E has not only embraced the vision of the Cohesive Strategy, it is an active leader in Southern California implementing the philosophy of the strategy.  The utility believes strongly that the keys to success under each of the goals is meaningful collaboration with local stakeholders, sharing responsibility and the mitigation of risk, active partnerships with the interagency wildland fire community, and engaging the local communities to take responsibility for defensible space.
All photos: SDG&E and CAL FIRE.


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