We returned to our home after the California wildfires burned right through our neighborhood, missing us but coming much too close for comfort. In our rural town of Fallbrook, more than 40,000 people had to be evacuated for up to five days. Nine thousand acres burned, and 206 homes, two commercial buildings, and more than 20,000 avocado trees in local groves were destroyed by the Rice fire.
More than 1,000 firefighters battled the blazes, and at least three were injured. Power was out for parts of the town near us for a couple of days, but homes farther down our street have been told they may be without power for two more weeks.
Now the fires are under control, and the local situation has settled down somewhat. I want to talk about the cause and the effect—especially the financial effect—of this fire. You see, the cause of this fire is reported to be wind damage to a trans-former and/or high-voltage lines on a pole in Rice Canyon, which caused the sparks that set brush on fire. Many other fires have been caused in a like manner, such as the Rancho Bernardo Witch fire that was even more devastating than our smaller one.
Let’s start by totaling up the estimated costs of this disaster. Two hundred eight buildings at about a half-million dollars each adds up to about $100 million. A grove of 20,000 avocado trees valued at more than $1,000 each is at least $20 million. If we assume that half the people evacuated lost three days work, that is 60,000 days of lost productivity, which I estimate is about $400 per day, for a cost of $25 million. Direct firefighting costs have been estimated at more than $5 million. Then there are all the cleanup costs, including all the rebuilding of aerial power lines burned during the conflagration. All this totals somewhere in the range of $150 million, plus rebuilding costs. I have no idea how many millions that is going to be, but we’ll try to estimate that, too.
According to a San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) press release, the numerous San Diego county fires caused the loss of more than 1,000 utility poles and affected 35 miles of overhead electric distribution cables. Approximately 80,000 customers lost power for multiple days. Up to 2,700 customers will be without power for 10 days or more. SDG&E has 750 employees and 475 contractors working on restoration efforts. You cannot drive around here without seeing the utility’s trucks, especially bucket trucks.
Trying to estimate SDG&E repair costs is difficult. A pole costs $3,000 to $5,000, which means it is going to cost $3 to $5 million to replace the poles, plus replacing the electrical wires and hardware. That at least doubles the costs to $6 to $10 million. An alternative estimate would be that 1,225 employees will work a week at a cost of at least $2,000 per day each (loaded with overhead, like those bucket trucks) for a total of $12.25 million.
Since we have no way of reliably estimating the lost productivity of those who are not getting power until this restoration work is done, we’ll have to ignore it. That leaves us with an estimated cost of around $160 million dollars. And that is just for one relatively small wildfire in a mostly rural community. All because of wind and an aerial power line.
Do you see where I’m headed? For years, people have called for replacing overhead electrical wires with underground ones, usually for aesthetic reasons. I have focused on the cost of one small wildfire. But my concern is wider, and others agree. Joe Mozingo wrote in the Los Angeles Times on November 4: “High-voltage lines can start fires when they cross, touch tree branches or hit the ground, causing the electrical current to arc in explosions of sparks,” pointing to a greater scope of the problem.
And we have all seen the aftermath of an out-of-control vehicle smashing into a utility pole. An engineer at one electrical util-ity once told me while the biggest cause of failure for buried cables is what we call “backhoe fade”—cables being dug up by mis-take; in contrast, the biggest cause of aerial cable failure is “target practice.”
While we can think of many advantages of having cables underground, the only disadvantage is the considerable cost of re-placing aerial cables with underground ones. Savings in maintenance and restoration will make up for part of the cost, but an even greater savings comes from the prevention of disasters such as we experienced recently. And really, the cost should be divided among all the users of the poles (electrical utility, telephone company and CATV company) plus the government, which saves firefighting costs. Maybe even the insurance companies would chip in by reducing insurance rates; it could save them a few billion, too.
Plans are already approved to bury poles in urban residential areas around San Diego over the next 60 years, but it’s mostly for aesthetic reasons. Residents are paying a monthly fee to the utilities to cover at least part of the costs. There are far more compelling public safety and economic reasons for doing it in the remote areas of the county, but that argument gets dismissed with little discussion.
But perhaps there is another less-expensive solution. If burying the cables is too costly, why not monitor them and shut down any links that are broken. Equipment to monitor current is readily available, and an open circuit should be immedi-ately obvious. When the lines were downed on our property, it took almost an hour to shut the power off, while automated systems should be able to do it in a fraction of a second. Having done a consulting project with a company in the utility monitoring business recently, I plan to pursue this possibility with them. I’ll keep you updated. EC
HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.
Ed. Note: This article was paired with "First Responders: California Wildfires" by Susan M. Casey in the print magazine.