Arson Suspicion Lingers for Grid Operator

By Published On: September 4, 2004

A little more than a year ago, the California Independent System Operator watched as yet another wildfire broke out in an area that had become familiar territory for accidental blazes. Official investigations uncovered no evidence of arson. However, the pattern of summertime conflagrations in the vicinity of the Path 26 transmission corridor?and the grid operator?s worries?have continued into 2004. CAISO?s view of things might best be expressed by a popular paraphrase of hipster poet Charles Bukowski: Just because you?re paranoid doesn?t mean they?re not out to get you. ?It?s happened a couple of times again this summer,? said CAISO director of grid operations Jim McIntosh, referring to fires that sprang up near Path 26, a trio of high-voltage lines the grid operator considers vital to shuttling electricity to the southern half of the state. ?It seems to happen on high-load days, and it?s evident that the intent is to interrupt power flow. If those three lines go out, that?s ugly.? In the region, suspicious fires date back to June of 2002, according to CAISO. Since then, repeated blazes?sharing a remarkable similarity in location, time of day, weather conditions, and high statewide electric demand?have led the grid operator to suspect that arsonists could be at work. When fires take hold, entities such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the California Department of Forestry usually coordinate their assessments with the local utility, in this case Southern California Edison. Other than providing ?lots of interesting coincidences,? probes into the cause of the fires have proved inconclusive, according to Hector Alvarez, CAISO director of security. McIntosh admitted that few avenues of response are available to the grid operator when wildfires begin to spread. To shore up lost power supplies, CAISO can call on additional generators to feed the grid. Still, if Path 26 should fall victim to fire or heavy smoke, only the DC Intertie would be left to route electricity to Southern California, a line with much less capacity than the Path 26 corridor. In that case, ?the power would have to go out,? he said. Preventive measures would not be enough. ?We have 26,000 miles of transmission out there,? McIntosh said. ?There?s no easy way to make all of it safe at the same time.? Moreover, policing the parcel in question, though only a small portion of the entire grid, would be tough. The area stretches roughly from Bakersfield to just over the Grapevine pass leading into Southern California. Alvarez added that the best protection for the grid lies in its reliability and redundancy. But McIntosh noted that stronger remedies might be in order. ?The worst-case scenario would be to put some troops in there and watch the thing,? he said. In the event that local or federal authorities and agencies were to demand it, the National Guard could be called in for an ?enforcement response? if necessary, he explained. Adding further weight to McIntosh?s concerns is that the state?s fire season has not yet begun in earnest. The months of September and October are typically the most perilous for the fire-plagued area. ?My worst day would be to have a lightning strike in Northern California and a fire in Southern California,? he said.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now