Environment & Science

SoCal fires strain power and water systems

A burned-through utility pole hangs precariously over Highway 150 about a quarter mile from the origin of the Thomas Fire, near Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 6, 2017.
A burned-through utility pole hangs precariously over Highway 150 about a quarter mile from the origin of the Thomas Fire, near Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 6, 2017.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Power outages due this week's high winds and wildfires have left about 10,300 customers without electricity, according to the major power utilities in Southern California. Meanwhile, residents of some parts of Ventura and Ojai remained under an order to boil drinking water because of the potential for contamination due to the outages in the Thomas Fire area.

About 3,300 customers without power are in areas affected by the Thomas Fire, which began Monday and has grown to more than 132,000 acres, said Robert Villegas, spokesman for Southern California Edison.

Another 7,000 customers are without power because of high winds. That number includes nearly 3,000 customers in the Idyllwild area, whose power lines were de-energized Thursday to prevent tree-damaged power lines from sparking new fires, Villegas said.

The Thomas Fire was still active Friday, delaying damage assessments in burn areas. It'll be at least another day before officials know how extensively SoCal Edison’s power grid burned and what needed to be replaced.

Only a few dozen customers in the Creek, Rye and Liberty fire areas remained without power, Villegas said.

Within Los Angeles, the city Department of Water and Power had just 20 customers without power, none of the outages were fire-related. That includes the Skirball Fire.

As early as Wednesday, Edison had dispatched work crews to begin the job of replacing power poles on the outskirts of the Thomas Fire where burned and fallen poles blocked roads like California Highway 150.

Warning on portable generators

Most evacuees will have both power and gas when they return home in coming days, utility spokespersons said. However, it’s possible some areas might not have electricity, and some households might turn to portable generators.

A small 1,500-watt generator can power a refrigerator and a few lights, while a larger 6,800-watt model can handle several appliances.

However, those generators should never be connected directly to a dwelling’s electrical panel or power meter, Villegas said.

“I know the temptation is to do that to try to be able to use the outlets in the home,” he said.

But Villegas said the power can flow back out onto the wires on the street and give workers a potentially lethal shock.

Instead, he advises to use an extension cord to plug appliances directly into generators, no power strips, just one appliance per outlet to avoid an overload that could shut the generator down.

Individual gas lines at buildings that burned will have to be capped and repaired, however there have been no significant damage to the overall natural gas system in Southern California Gas’ service territory, spokesman Chris Gilbride said.

Hydrants ran dry

Firefighting efforts were hampered early in the Thomas Fire when power to water pumps failed in areas from Ventura to Santa Barbara, said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Steve Kaufman.

"Power infrastructure went down and so we literally lost power,” Kaufman said.

"There were some of the pump stations that provide water to our fire hydrants that also went down. So we had some water issues overnight that our firefighters had to deal with,” Kaufman said.

Most fire hydrants are gravity fed, meaning water from a higher area flows via gravity to hydrants at a lower area. But some areas use electrical power to pump water up into water tanks. When electrical power to pumps is cut off, or pumps are burned over, it’s up to the water agency to provide backup power.

Within Los Angeles, about one-quarter of the city has hydrants that rely on tanks filled by electrically powered pumps, said LADWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo. Those pumps typically have combustion-powered back up pumps. Also, the DWP will fill tanks with more water than necessary for daily needs so that if primary and backup pumps fail, the excess water in the tanks will continue to supply water at sufficient pressure for a time.

Ventura boil water order due to power outages

Residents on both the Casitas and Ventura city water systems are under an order to boil water before drinking or cooking with it.

In the Casitas Municipal Water District serving Ojai and parts of Ventura, firefighting consumed so much water that big tanks were left nearly empty. The resulting low water pressure created other problems in the system, said spokesman Ron Merckling.

Two of Casitas’ water tanks ran low, and the resulting low pressure causes water to stall in the lines opening the possibility that dirt or other substances surrounding water lines could seep through cracks in pipes into the water. In another case, power to the water treatment plant was shut off, so water in one of the district’s lines could not get the treatment it needed. The system supplies one-third of the water used in the city of Ventura, which is also under a boil water order.

None of the water hydrants connected to the Casitas Municipal Water District failed to provide water, said spokesman Ron Merckling. A spokesperson from Ventura city was not available to address the question of dry hydrants.