Members Race to Repair Fire
October 30, 2003
The countrys attention has been riveted on the fight to save Southern California communities from the wildfires that have consumed 2,400 homes, killed 20 people and raged across 660,000 acres at an estimated cost of more than $2 billion.
Less noticed are the efforts of IBEW members from San Diego and Los Angeles, who have been manipulating the flow of power to minimize the fires impact on the electrical system and customers, assessing damage and quickly restoring power to the scorched system the minute the fire roars past.
Many members of San Diego Local 465 and Diamond Bar-based Local 47 (whose jurisdiction ranges from Los Angeles to the north) have been forced from their homes due to the threat of fire. Others have lost their homes outright, said Local 465s Bill Layton, assistant business manager.
Local 465 represents workers at San Diego Gas and Electric, where the fires have incinerated more than 700 poles and wreaked havoc with the utilitys switching center. In addition to their extra responsibilities as linemen during the disaster, members have to contend with the possibility they might not have a home to return to at the end of the day.
"The company has told everybody to take care of families and homes and then come to work," Layton said. "You know a lineman, you cant tell them to go home if theres work to be done. Its quite a human effort."
The most severe wildfires in the states history have brought life in Southern California to a near-standstill, as ash contaminates water supplies, thick clouds of smoke crowd light from the sky at midday and residents are evacuated from their homes on little or no notice. On Monday, Oct. 27, San Diego local government officials ordered schools and city offices closed because the smoke was so severe. But Tuesday, Oct. 28 and Wednesday, Oct. 29 found IBEW members out in force, making damage assessments and setting out to repair the system.
"Until today, the sun was a little orange dot in the sky," Layton said on Wednesday. "It was gray smoke everywhere." Hot dry Santa Ana winds subsided on Wednesday, but by Thursday, Oct. 30, easterly winds off the Pacific caused the fires to change direction.
Many mountain resort communities east of Los Angeles that were in the path of one of the fires on Wednesday were in Local 47s territory, said Business Manager Patrick Lavin, who is also Seventh District International Executive Council member.
"At this point because the fires are still raging and the only people up in the affected areas are the firefighters, our people have not been able to get up there to make assessments of the damage in order to know what kind of repairs are going to be necessary," Lavin said. "Thats why a lot of them are standing by."
They do know that the fires have damaged or destroyed significant parts of the transmission, sub-transmission and distribution system, including lines, poles and transformers. Many Local 47 members are accompanying fire crews to turn the power off on lines that havent been destroyed, Lavin said. In the areas where the fire has burned through, crews have begun making repairs to damaged circuits and poles.
Contributing fuel to already strong fires are more than a million trees sucked dry by bark beetle infestations. Utilities have for the past two years been removing dead trees from right-of-ways, Lavin said. Because they act as tinder to a wildfire, such a task has taken on added importance since the fires started.
Although the conditions are extreme, members are holding up, Lavin said. "We have a strong membership that is always ready to get to work during any kind of natural disaster to continue to supply electricity to residents," he said of the efforts of each local, including Northern California Local 1245, which sent contract lineman to assist the utilities with operations and repairs. "Thats what the IBEW is all about."
Los Angeles Local 18 Assistant Business Manager Russ Butow reported that as of Thursday, Oct. 30, the flames remained well outside the locals jurisdiction of the city limits, although some members homes have been determined to be in the path of the fires.
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