An occasional power outage can be expected at a residence or business, but a succession of four failures within 11 days in April angered some Fallbrook residents. A significant number of these San Diego Gas & Electric customers were affected in each of the outages. The failures occurred April 3, 6, 13, and 14, with the first resulting in a fire in the Sycamore Ranch development.
“A power line went down and started a brush fire next to our house about 11 p.m. that (Wednesday) night,” said Catherine Ginther. High school student Nathan Benner, who lives in the neighborhood, spotted the fire and alerted Ginther and her family.
“Nathan called 911 to report the fire and then drove right over to notify us and another neighbor,” said Ginther, adding that she had “no idea” the incident had occurred prior to that.
“I looked out the door and there was the fire; we immediately got everybody out of the house because we didn’t know how long we would have driveway access,” said Ginther.
The incident resulted in a power line falling to the ground. The fire was burning in an area “about 40 feet long and 6 feet wide” Ginther estimated.
First responders to the scene were from Pala Fire and Cal Fire, but crews told residents they had to wait for SDG&E to cut electricity before water could be used to extinguish the fire.
“We were told not to use any garden hoses, because of it being an electrical fire,” said Ginther.
SDGE spokesperson Amber Albrecht said the April 3 outage affected 1,400 customers and power was fully restored some 10 hours later.
“[It was] caused by a failure of an overhead switch,” said Albrecht. “That switch was replaced and all the other overhead switches on that circuit were inspected by infrared thermography to insure there were no other switches to be concerned about.”
While Albrecht said SDG&E feels confident the situation has been rectified, Ginther said she still feels uncomfortable about the power poles in her neighborhood and her confidence in the utility company is meager.
When Ginther and her family moved into the home, there were “regular power poles and lines” in the neighborhood, she said, but those were replaced with larger, steel poles over the past few years.
“We wondered at the time why they didn’t bury the lines and when we asked SDG&E they said it was too expensive to do that,” she said. “The way these lines run now, I am really uncomfortable, because in the event of an earthquake or fire, I’m afraid one of these lines is going to come down on my house. That’s almost what happened here.”
Interestingly enough, in the April 3 incident, Ginther said she and her neighbors never lost electricity, that it was just briefly turned off during the fire situation and rapidly turned back on.
Ginther also said her husband saw utility workers near the pole a few hours before the line came down.
“My husband saw a worker there between 2 and 3 p.m. that day; he told SDG&E that,” she said. “They don’t appear to be reasonable people; they act like they really don’t care.”
During the emergency situation, Ginther said she also formed two very different opinions of how various agency representatives handled the situation.
“The firefighters were all super professional and treated the situation very seriously, but the SDG&E people were scruffy and had a lackadaisical attitude,” said Ginther. “I thought to myself, ‘You guys are in charge of this? I’ve got a high voltage downed power line 15 feet from my driveway!'”
Neighbor Walt Wirtz was concerned at how high temperatures skyrocketed during the incidence, since it resulted in molten glass debris on the ground.
“SDG&E took as much of the molten glass as possible; there were just a few small pieces left and some of it went down deeper into the ground; you would need a shovel to see how far it goes,” said Wirtz.
“The rocks became glass; that’s how hot it got,” said Ginther.
Another power failure occurred in Fallbrook around 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 6.
“That affected about 47 customers,” said Albrecht. Power was restored eight hours later in that incident, at about 10 p.m.
“That one was caused by a failure of an underground cable,” explained Albrecht. “All affected cables were replaced. It takes some time to identify the location where an underground cable failure has occurred, and it also takes time to pull lines underground.”
Albrecht said, “Underground lines are more reliable than overhead poles because they are protected where they aren’t exposed to wind, trees, animals, or automobiles.”
On Saturday, April 13, shortly after 9:38 a.m., some 444 SDG&E customers in Fallbrook lost power. Some residents said the power failed after they heard a loud noise.
SDG&E customer service representatives told inquiring customers that the outage was “due to the weather,” although the weather in Fallbrook was clear.
Albrecht said weather wasn’t the issue.
“That outage was caused by bird contact on an overhead wire; it happened on one circuit,” she said. Service was restored seven and a half hours later at about 5 p.m.
The following day, Sunday, April 14, 1,458 Fallbrook customers lost power at about 6:40 a.m. For the majority of those affected, it lasted only 20 minutes, for some it lasted until 4:20 p.m., over nine hours. Again, utility company representatives told callers it was “due to weather conditions” although no moisture or wind was evident.
“The April 14 incident was caused by bird contact also,” said Albrecht. “It was on the same circuit as the day before, but a different wire. The line was rebuilt with stronger wire and the spacing between the wires was increased to prevent bird contact. Sometimes, when birds take off, their wings can touch lines that aren’t grounded.”
For many Fallbrook residents, the outages caused significant difficulty, and delayed business transactions for some.
Abrecht said that April was an odd situation for the utility company.
“All these outages occurred in the same circuit; this is very rare,” said Albrecht. “Typically, a customer experiences one power outage every other year; this is definitely not the norm.”
“We realize it’s an inconvenience,” she said. “When an outage occurs, we try to restore the power as safely and quickly as possible and fix it correctly.”
Albrecht said SDG&E is “more consistent” than its counterparts in other areas.
“SDG&E has the best electric reliability right now in the state, although some people might not feel that way given the recent problems in the Fallbrook area,” she said.