By Kim Hamilton / East County Magazine / August 6, 2012
Deerhorn Valley–We are now well into a perilous fire season. SDG&E, in its guise as the “Sunrise Powerlink Fire Mitigation Group,” has notified some 1,300 at-risk homeowners along the Powerlink that they are “potentially qualified to receive grant funds for the creation of defensible space or structure hardening…” Up to $2,000 per parcel is being made available on a yearly basis.
Make no mistake: this is not done out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor will it eliminate the increased danger we now face from Powerlink. It was simply a requirement for approval. A “partial mitigation.”
We, the at-risk and soon-to-be-crushed (as our Governor threatened last week), need answers to some serious questions about these “grants”:
1. Why did SDG&E fail to notify victims who lost homes in the 2007 fires and labeled them “ineligible” for grant assistance? One-fourth of my Deerhorn neighbors are “ineligible” for assistance, leaving both them and the community less protected.
2. Why has SDG&E waited so long to release these funds? Even if approval is immediate (not likely), only 60 days remain for Structure-Hardening work to be bid, contracted, scheduled, and completed. What if we don’t/can’t make the deadline?
It’s too late for Defensible Space work: Our hills are matchstick dry, and responsible people don’t use power equipment after mid-June. Without offering any expertise, SDG&E is requiring us to find our own workers– or do the work ourselves. Who will be liable for fires ignited by hot engines, metal blades and sparking equipment used in dry grass and chaparral? Let me guess that it won’t be SDG&E.
3. Why, with the funding already collected, does SDG&E insist homeowners pay all costs up-front and out of their own pockets? We are not the privileged or elite of North County; few of us have an extra $2,000 lying around. Even after reimbursement our net return will be $1,500 or less after taxes. Which begs the question, “Why did SDG&E structure the grants as taxable income?” They posted $105 million in profits last year (up 18%), and then collected $50 million more from their customers for their higher wildfire insurance premiums. Generosity is not their long suit.
4. If we don’t (or can’t afford to) apply for a grant, and then fall victim to a PowerLink-caused fire, will SDG&E claim no they are not responsible because they OFFERED funds, and we didn’t (or couldn’t) apply?
5. What (really) does SDG&E think $2,000 will buy? My neighbors spent twice that on their defensible space maintenance this year alone. $2,000 is a spit in the bucket, a slap in the face, a stab in the back. Choose your cliché, but it doesn’t go far.
Is our Governor oblivious to this danger, or does he simply not care?
A week ago Governor Brown stood before the corporate bigwigs and the minions of SDG&E’s Sunrise PowerLink. Before this friendly and elite crowd he gave a verbal nod to the small group of protestors with their homemade signs, and vowed to “crush the opposition.”
That’s me. That’s my neighbor. That’s my community of Deerhorn Valley.
In 2007 San Diego watched million-dollar homes in Rancho Bernardo go up in smoke and flame. East of Jamul, where people live a bit more modestly, my small community of Deerhorn Valley was also devastated in the Harris Fire, losing 1 of every 4 homes to wind-fueled flames.
The firestorm swept through Deerhorn Valley not once… but twice. We returned to find black-ash hills and canyons, charred carcasses of livestock, twisted metal and cracked cement– the burial markers of homes and lives. The Harris Fire took 5 lives, injured 21 firefighters and 40 civilians, displaced 330 families and destroyed over 200 homes. Even a year later fire victims were still navigating a labyrinth of insurance forms and FEMA papers. Fewer than 4% had managed to rebuild.
But for Sunrise Powerlink planners (looking for a route east to the Mexican border and Imperial County) this was Opportunity Knocking. A quick change from the preferred (and safer) route to the north to a southern route provided a quick and dirty fix to many issues. Affected communities had begun to question the claims of greener energy, the damage to public lands, and the very necessity of the PowerLink lines in the first place. It surely was easier to relocate than to challenge the attorneys and moneyed opposition of North County.
So today the 500kV PowerLink strings along massive towers and traverses the dry hills and canyons of Lakeside, Ramona, Dulzura, Deerhorn Valley, Potrero and Jacumba … areas where historically the Santa Ana winds have fanned sparks into infernos. And now the danger increases for all. When the next fire ignites along this corridor (as it surely will), there will be no air attack, no retardant, and no ground firefighters permitted within 1,000 feet of the PowerLink lines, energized or not.
For those who want to learn more about SDG&E’s fire mitigation funds, an informational meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 7, at 7 p.m. at the Deerhorn Valley Fire Station, 2383 Honey Springs Road. An SDG&E rep will be on hand to answer questions. (View a brochure on the fire mitigation funds here: part 1, part 2.)
The SDG&E Powerlink has put us all at more risk than ever–with the full backing of our Governor. Why aren’t they doing more to keep us safe from further harm? And where is the California Public Utilities Commission –do they really think it’s okay for SDG&E to weasel out of its responsibilities to protect those people it’s put at highest risk?
Inquiring minds (of the not-yet-crushed opposition) want to know. How about some answers?
Kim Hamilton is the Editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler.