A frustrated crowd erupted in anger last Tuesday evening at a community meeting hosted by Southern California Edison. The event at King Gillette Ranch in Malibu Canyon was intended to present more information on the utility’s imminent Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) plan that has many Malibu and nearby residents worried about having no electricity in a high fire danger situation.
Edison officials eased into the specifics about deenergizing the grid in a high fire risk and wind event with cookies, coffee and opening statements by a Red Cross spokesperson. Bill Chiu of SCE said he wanted to provide context, reminding the crowded hall that we are living in a “new normal” of wildfire destruction. Eight of the most destructive brush fires in California have occurred since 2015. Six of the eight happened just last year. To mitigate wildfires, SCE says it is has a multipronged approach, including covering conductors on overhead lines, reinforcing power poles (or replacing them with fire resistant material) and installing weather cameras to monitor conditions. SCE says it is also managing vegetation—a fire fuel source—by inspecting and/or trimming 900,000 trees. It’s not just trees close to power lines that worry electric company officials; according to Chiu, it’s also “trees further away from power lines that potentially have branches that break off under high wind conditions.” Ignition caused by palm fronds and branches blowing onto live power sources can create arcs and sparks that can ignite a wildfire.
A multitude of weather stations are also being installed by SCE in high-fire-risk areas along with fire-monitoring cameras.
SCE’s Cameron McPherson called PSPS a “proactive, preemptive de-energization to avoid a utility-caused ignition during the most extreme conditions.
“This is not something we take lightly,” McPherson said. “This is something we don’t want to do, but in light of the new normal we need to leverage this as an option. We’re talking extremely high winds, potential for debris to be flying into our lines, low humidity and high temperatures in high-fire-risk areas.”
The meeting’s agenda called for a 45-minute question and answer session, which SCE representatives started by answering what they called their most frequently asked questions. After waiting for some time, someone in the crowd interrupted and asked when the audience could start with its own questions. That’s when voices were raised and the situation got chaotic for a few minutes—until Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner approached the stage and called for calm, asking the crowd to write out questions. “Let’s use pen and pencils—not pitchforks,” Wagner urged.
With time running out, Wagner called on a handful of residents who voiced concerns including Scott Dittrich who called out SCE for using technology “from the Pony Express” and asking why the utility has not undergrounded wires. Chiu explained it was not only too expensive, but was not efficient for troubleshooting.
Linda Hill of Topanga called the mandatory outage policy a “bad idea” due to “amateurs” with gas-powered generators that could add to the fire risk in dangerous conditions and said that she, as a health care provider, would not be able to reach her patients in an emergency.
Longtime Malibu resident Beth Lucas said, “I’m absolutely opposed to PSPS.
“I live in a fire rebuild neighborhood that is supplied by a water tank,” Lucas described. “If the electricity is out, we have no generator or power to get water up to our tank. For that reason, most of my neighborhood burned in 1993. I have neighbors who are terrified. I have neighbors who have said that if [Southern California Edison does] this, people will die. Let’s say they turn the power off, it’s the middle of the night—a cigarette or homeless encampment starts a fire—no one will know. We will have no way of getting notification because the cell towers require electricity. We won’t have access to our televisions. They are trying to avoid lawsuits. If people die, there’s (sic) going to be more lawsuits.”
Lucas also got applause from the crowd when she stated that once PSPS notifications are sent out—and that could be 48 hours before power is turned off—”criminals” would have notice, too, and could break into homes.
It is still unclear how long Malibu could be affected with a preliminary shutoff since lines cannot be powered up until they are inspected for debris.
The final public comment came from a Topanga resident, who said he welcomed SCE’s plan for public safety and, when booed, told the crowd to “grow up.”
He was quickly shouted down and called a “moron.”