First Responders: California Wildfires

On Sunday night, October 21, 2007, at about 7 pm, Tom Hedges could see the glow of the wildfires, coming over the mountains toward his home in Ramona, Calif., a rural, inland community of about 40,000 in northeast San Diego County. Hedges and his wife started gathering important papers, their eight cats and some valued possessions from a safe when the power went out. They grabbed flashlights, found six of the cats and headed toward Ramona. Then, Hedges realized he had left his wallet and cash on the kitchen counter.

“Should I go back?” he asked his wife. But he didn’t have a choice. The Department of Forestry was directing people away from the hilly terrain they had just left.

“There was a strong southwest wind of about 50 miles per hour and I thought, ‘It won’t burn back north toward the house,’” Hedges said. He was wrong.

Shortly after they arrived in Ramona, the entire town was ordered to evacuate, and everyone leaving on the only two high-ways created a massive traffic jam. Parked in a friend’s driveway, Hedges waited his turn and watched as hundreds of police cars and fire trucks came and went on the road leading to the hills where the Santa Ana winder, blowing 50 to 100 mph, whipped the wildfires along.

Early the next morning, Hedges received a call.

“Once we started losing power at some of our sites, we called Tom to help us assess the damage,” said Ralph McIntosh, Water Operations superintendent for Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD), which contracts Hedges Electric to perform its day-to-day maintenance and repair.

Hedges was concerned about the status of the RMWD as well as the status of his home. District personnel, allowed in fire areas, wanted to help and checked out the situation. Forty-five minutes later, they told him that his home had been consumed by fire.

“They picked me up,” Hedges said, “and I had about 10 minutes to look around the smoldering rubble that had been my house.”

Since he had parked his service truck some distance from the house, it was safe. “I got my truck, stopped by the RMWD of-fice to get briefed on the status of the different pump stations and went to work,” he said.

He discovered San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E) 69,000-volt line that feeds RMWD’s pump stations was down. Hedges put together a crew of two and headed to the RMWD’s Poway Pump Station. The crew disconnected the normal power from pump sta-tions, restored power and electronic communication to one of the storage tanks at the booster pump station. As helicopters picked up water from Lake Ramona to fight the fires, the crew hooked up small portable generators at eight different pump stations. When RMWD personnel checked the SCADA system, however, they discovered there was no water flow. Without water, the pumps couldn’t function with or without replacement power.

“As that day ended,” Hedges said, “everything was still ablaze, and people were still evacuating.”

Multiple fires burned, propelled by the strong, continuous Santa Ana winds. SDG&E was dealing with problems created by the downed power lines.

The utility’s Emergency Operating Center contacted Leslie Sabin-Mercado, SDG&E’s manager of Service Standards and Customer Generation in the Electric Transmission & Distribution Engineering Department. When Sabin-Mercado contacted Hawthorne Power Systems in San Diego to inquire as to the availability of two 2-megawatt (MW) generators and transformers, she learned RMWD had recently contacted them with a similar request.

“My company’s executives count on me to ensure generators are deployed safely and efficiently in emergencies, so I need a team of experts I have confidence in to accomplish the work,” said Sabin-Mercado, who contacted Alex Concha, vice president, field operations, Dynalectric, San Diego. Dynalectric had previously supported SDG&E’s portable generator needs in emergency situations, and would be their electrical contractor for the portable generator installations. She also called Ralph McIntosh, at RMWD, to confirm its needs and to ask about Tom Hedges’ availability.

“Over the years, I’ve worked with Tom and the RMWD, and I knew Tom’s knowledge of their pump station would be valuable to our efforts,” she said.

Sabin-Mercado arranged transport of the 2-MW generators to supply 4,160V service and 2,400V service to two different lineups of pumps for the RMWD system, but it took almost eight hours. One was transported from the Los Angeles area and the other from Riverside, a town that is usually an hour’s drive away. Police escorts were needed to get them—each the size of the cargo end of an 18-wheeler—through closed off areas. She also secured two transformers needed to step up the 480V power from the generators to 4,160V and 2,400V to feed the switchgear to energize the pump motors of the RMWD’s 30-to-50-year-old pump stations.

That Tuesday evening, Hedges and Dynalectric worked to energize the 4,160V, and it was operational by about 11:30 p.m. Since no one from the RMWD was available to check phase rotation on the 2,400V service, the crew reassembled the next morning in order to energize the 2,400V service and bump one of the motors to ensure correct phase rotation, so both pump stations would be operational.

On Wednesday morning, however, when voltage was appliedfrom the second 2-megawatt generator at the 2,400V pump site to feed the other series of pumps, three of the fuses for the high voltage equipment blew. What wasn’t known at the time was that the output of the transformer was incorrect. Since the 4,160V had been energized supplying the correct voltage, it was assumed that the second transformer was set correctly as well. It wasn’t, so when it was energized, it blew the fuse to the volt-meter.

Due to the age of the RMWD equipment, specialized fuses were needed. Sabin-Mercado checked to see if SDG&E had the nec-essary fuses in their inventory. It didn’t. Arrangements had to be made for the fuses to be sent overnight to RMWD.

In the meantime, Sabin-Mercado’s suggested solution to the situation was to use both 2-MW generators connected in parallel to power the 4,160V service since the second generator couldn’t serve the 2,400V service until the replacement fuses arrived. Concha and his crew, Hedges and Mike LeClair, Hawthorne Power System’s senior technician, met Sabin-Mercado at the site. By 6 p.m., the team had the generators operating in parallel, and shortly thereafter, both 900-hp motors were operating, doubling the capacity that was brought online the night before.

“Because the starting current was extremely high for each 900-hp pump,” Concha said, “paralleling the two generators set at 4,160V was an extremely practical solution. The problem with the fuses looked like a major setback at the time, but the team quickly recovered by paralleling the equipment.”

“All of other jobs we did for SDG&E served the purpose of getting power to a community water facility, to sites that would fa-cilitate special meetings or as rest areas for firefighters,” Concha said.

On Wednesday, workers also hooked up emergency power to a water pump at the Potrero Community Park, a staging area for the firefighters.

On Thursday, Oct. 25, Sabin-Mercado deployed another 2-MW generator and a transformer from Hawthorne Power Systems to be ready to serve the 2,400V service. They were installed. When the fuses arrived on Thursday afternoon, the 2,400V service was en-ergized and phase rotation was checked, and by approximately 6 p.m. that evening, an additional 700-hp pump was running.

“We got that hooked up and were pumping water and had full capacity to Ramona by then,” Hedges said, “but the system covers 75 square miles and 320 miles of 16-inch and 20-inch pipe. That’s an enormous amount of water, and it took 24 to 36 hours to refill the system. Since the pumps had not been functioning for approximately two days, there was a negative suc-tion when the water drained out, which meant that the water had to be tested before it could be deemed fit for drinking.”

Then Hedges and the RMWD faced a firestorm of another sort. Some media and public officials criticized their response to the situation. Hedges decided to set the story straight.

“People didn’t understand the technical complexity of the situation,” Hedges said, and, therefore, he called into the local talk radio station to rebut the criticisms.

“With everything still smoldering, including his own home, he was praising us. Tom is there when you need him. I can’t say enough about him,” said Ron Mulick, Water Operations manager, RMWD.

On Friday, Oct. 26, Sabin-Mercado performed a primary assessment of the damage to SDG&E’s 12-kV circuit, which serves the RMWD’s upper pump station and one additional customer.

“I observed extensive fire damage while engineering the job to rebuild the line,” she said. “I knew the poles would need to be set with a helicopter, and all but one of the pole holes would need to be hand dug. On that Saturday morning, we had hole-digging and line crews on-site, working to make the repairs.”

Sabin-Mercado also brought Mike Niggli, SDG&E’s COO to the RMWD’s pump station sites to view the generator installa-tions and the rebuilding of the transmission and distribution lines.

“Mike’s assigning the highest level of priority to rebuilding our facilities serving the RMWD allowed us to restore normal utility service in record time, four days ahead of the original schedule,” Sabin-Mercado said.

At the request of RMWD, Sabin-Mercado also arranged for the transport of a fourth 2-MW generator and transformer to the upper 4,160V pump station that is located just below the Lake Ramona dam. It has four 800-hp motors and provides untreated water for fire suppression and water for agricultural purposes. Dynalectric completed the work, and the pump station was energized by 6 p.m.

By Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, SDG&E had restored power to the lower pump station. Hedges acted as a consultant for RMWD as Dynalectric and SDG&E substation crews worked from 6:30 p.m. until midnight to energize the substation, get the generators disconnected, and then reconnect SDG&E’s permanent wiring at the switchgear locations.

On Monday, Oct. 29, with power also restored for the upper Lake Ramona pump, Dynalectric and Hedges Electric discon-nected the fourth and last generator and transformer. Also that day, the water in Ramona was deemed to be potable.

“Having strong, professional relationships between SDG&E and the NECA member electrical contractors is vital to provid-ing safe, reliable energy to our customers, during both emergencies and under normal operating conditions,” Sabin-Mercado said. “For Dynalectric and Hedges Electric to perform the extensive work in the short amount of time we had, with zero acci-dents or injuries, is a credit to both companies’ safety vision and workmanship values and the local JATC for providing excel-lent training for the IBEW electricians.”

The Witch fire in Ramona burned 197,990 acres, destroyed 461 homes and was only one of the fires that impacted the lives of Southern Californians.

Two weeks after the fires, Tom Hedges said everything was back to normal with the RMWD. For him, though, and for the thousands of others who lost their homes, that’s not the case.

“The reality of it is finally setting in,” he said. “Things get a little bit better each day, but the process is going to be a long one.” EC

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at or

Ed Note: This article was paired with "Cause and Effect: What we can learn from the wildfires to prevent other outages" by Jim Hayes in the print magazine. 





About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or www.susancaseybooks...

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