20 Years Later, Southern California Edison and Fire Agencies Still Work Together to Protect Communities
Mike Jones vividly remembers patrolling the Santa Monica Mountains with the Los Angeles County Fire Department during the inaugural Operation Santa Ana event in the spring of 1999. The goal was to locate tree branches encroaching on power lines and find overgrown vegetation on utility poles in fire-prone communities.
At that time, the event only took place in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties with a select number of trained and licensed Southern California Edison arborists, including Jones. Fire agencies, including Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department, oversaw those vegetation inspections in fire-prone communities.
“It’s been a huge learning experience since we started these inspections two decades ago,” said Jones, SCE Vegetation Management senior specialist. “The tree trimming cycle back then was 14 months, now we’re on a 12-month cycle.”
Operation Santa Ana was named after Southern California’s Santa Ana winds that typically occur from September to May. The hurricane force winds, combined with low relative humidity and hot temperatures, create extreme weather conditions.
Two decades later, the goal remains the same, although Operation Santa Ana has expanded across SCE’s 50,000-square-mile service area and now includes: Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This annual event helps the company adhere to new guidelines adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2017.
“Operation Santa Ana helps the company achieve the regulatory fire hazard reduction requirements, but we go beyond that to maintain compliance throughout the year. It’s important to understand the growth rate among trees and we do,” said David Guzman, SCE Vegetation and Forestry manager. “Our work with all the fire agencies is also extremely important since it allows them to see that we’re well prepared for Santa Ana winds.”
The visual inspections during Operation Santa Ana are conducted in person and while driving through neighborhoods. Some SCE arborists find, on average, up to seven trees or more during a 10-hour shift that might need trimming. If that’s the case, a contractor crew is dispatched to cut the branches or vegetation away from the power lines or poles immediately.
LA County Fire Department Assistant Chief J. Lopez says fire vehicles and forestry division officers are present at every inspection location, so property owners understand that this work is being conducted to protect homes.
“The collaboration is critical. Power lines and branches don’t do well together during a high-wind situation, so prevention is the main component,” said Lopez. “The likelihood of starting a fire is minimal due to these prevention efforts. That helps us place the resources in the right place at the right time if a fire breaks out.”
SCE also continues to expand its 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Plan to protect the public from wildfires in high fire risk areas by installing insulation around power lines. It’s meant to protect the lines from arcing and sparking during high-wind events.
As for Jones, he has been with the company over 20 years now and continues to participate in Operation Santa Ana. However, his assignment was changed in 2012 and he is now responsible for inspecting parts of Riverside County, typically the Idyllwild and Menifee areas with Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire.
“Looking back on this partnership with fire agencies, I take pride in the fact that this proactive approach to public safety and fire prevention was piloted by Southern California Edison and adopted by other utilities in California,” he said.