In the Line of Fire
September 25th, 2018 by Joel McCollough

Left, Journeyman Lineman Scott Davies has been with Anza Electric Cooperative for 14 years. He grew up in Anza. Right, Journeyman Lineman Sandy King has been with Anza Electric Cooperative for more than four years. He grew up in Hemet, not far from where the fire started.
Photos by Phillip Elgie

Inside the early days of the Cranston Fire and the race to restore power with Anza Electric linemen

It was around noon July 25 when Sandy King first saw smoke. High above the Southern California desert in the bucket of a hydraulic lift, the lineman from Anza Electric Cooperative was hooking up a new transformer when he looked north and saw a massive smoke plume billowing up from beyond the next ridge.

“Oh my God,” Sandy said, yelling down to fellow lineman Scott Davies. “Look at that.”

Scott looked in the direction Sandy was pointing, and his eyes widened behind his sunglasses. He couldn’t be sure, but it appeared the area burning in the distance was the same area through which a vast network of power poles carried power to Anza’s 5,000 customers. The stocky, thickly bearded Anza native suppressed the anxiety bubbling up around one thought: This could be really bad.

Around the same time, law enforcement officials started receiving calls from several eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a man in a white Honda starting fires in the Hemet area. A crime bulletin was issued, and around 1 p.m.—less than two hours after the fire started—members of the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force pulled over a late-model, white Honda sedan and arrested Brandon N. McGlover on suspicion of setting multiple fires.

By about 2 p.m., Scott and his foreman, Ben Wallace, had reached the Mountain Center switch station—the point where Southern California Edison’s lines connect to and feed Anza’s. The linemen were now just 3 miles from the fire, which Scott thought he could see moving away from Anza’s service area.

He tried to maintain a positive mindset, hoping the situation would blow over.

He pulled out his phone and snapped a picture of the blaze. Within 24 hours, the spot where he was standing would be charred black and burnt to ash.

The linemen knew that even if they didn’t lose any power poles—and that was a big if—SCE would have to de-energize Anza’s line for safety reasons. By 6 p.m., Anza’s residents were without power.

To the high-desert community nestled just south of the San Jacinto National Forest, no electricity meant no way to pump water from the wells that give life to the area’s people and livestock, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no lights. Estimates for how long the outage could last ranged from one or two days to several weeks.

At Anza’s headquarters, General Manager Kevin Short reached out to the Generation and Transmission Cooperatives of Arizona—the wholesale power supply cooperative that generates Anza’s power. He explained the gravity of the situation. The G&T mobilized to provide the support Anza needed to get the power back on.

“Kevin made the decision from the get-go that we were going to give our customers power no matter the cost,” Scott says. “That clear directive from the top really set the tone for everyone’s response, and I think that’s a testament to not just his leadership but the commitment we all have to our members.”

The next morning, July 26, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

The first flatbed truck from the G&T kicked up dusty plumes as they lumbered to a halt outside Anza’s headquarters. Hydraulic brakes squealed and whooshed, and Anza had its lifeline: the first of six massive, 2,600-horsepower generators.

The sense of relief that came with the generator’s arrival was quickly eclipsed by the realization that no one on staff had any experience with the equipment.

The linemen knew electricity. They knew their system. But they never had to run Anza’s grid on 2-megawatt generators. They hunkered down and got to work, reading manuals and learning on the fly how to get the generators up and running.

Initially, the factory default settings prevented the generators from even operating. The vendor’s engineers had to step in and adjust the machines’ output to 1.6 or 1.7 megawatts.

“It took most of Thursday to figure out how to hook them up into our main feed and run some circuits so people could fill up wells or do what they needed to do,” Sandy says.

While Anza’s members waited for power, the co-op’s staff set up huge pallets of water in their lobby so members who needed water could get it there. They deployed several smaller generators into town, setting up a resource center and emergency shelter at the community hall.

Working with local Lions Club members, Anza’s staff set up another resource center at the local rodeo arena, where people could get water for their animals or have some of the food from a barbecue run by volunteers.

As everyone worked to provide essential services, Scott and Sandy thought ahead to the next phase. Firefighters still weren’t allowing anyone into the fire zone. The linemen feared what they might find once they were allowed to assess the damage to their lines.

“We have three guys on our crew, and it takes us about a half-day to a day just to repair one pole,” Sandy says. “In the past 13 years, the most we’ve ever lost in a fire was 15 poles, and all of those were on a roadway.”

Based on the fire’s size and location, the linemen were expecting more than that. To make things worse, all the poles they expected to lose were 60 to 80 feet tall and either up on a mountain, in a canyon or on a ridge.

The geography and logistics were a lineman’s nightmare. They were told to expect to work throughout August on repairing the damage.

The linemen had averaged 18 hours on Wednesday, and Thursday was looking no better.

By Friday, Anza had six of the RV-sized generators from Quinn Power Systems, but even with those hooked up and burning an average of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel each day, they simply couldn’t generate enough power to keep the system running at 100 percent.

Anza’s team came up with a plan to rotate circuits. Not all customers would have power all the time. Every four hours, crews had to be at different points in the system at the same time to rotate power through circuits so all customers had power for at least part of the day.

The co-op was able to provide about 75 percent of the system’s regular load with 90 percent reliability, according to Kevin.

“Everyone in the company stepped out of their comfort zone to do things they don’t usually do,” Sandy says about the race to get power back on for members. “Fiber (optic cable) guys worked with the ground crews and rallied to help with anything we needed. The extra manpower really saved us.”

Just when everything seemed to be going smoothly with the generators, Murphy’s Law kicked in. Lights flickered, and staff could see smoke coming out of the substation.

A very unlucky rodent had entered the main switch gear, causing a fire that melted all the conductors and switch gear.

Anza’s staff quickly put out the fire and rushed to make repairs and get the generator back up. Luckily, the generator provider had left the parts needed to fix the damage, and Anza’s staff got all generation back up and running within an hour.

By Friday afternoon, when generator power was finally flowing to Pinyon Pines, Scott headed out to check breakers—a time-consuming job. Pinyon Pines was a ghost town. The streets were empty. Scott half-expected to see a tumbleweed roll through.

He was surprised when he saw an old man flagging him down with a shaky arm upraised.

Already running on fumes from the endless long hours and limited sleep, Scott braced himself to field the standard questions and complaints from another frustrated, anxious customer.

He stopped and rolled down the truck’s window.

“I just want to shake your hand,” the man said, extending his arm.

The gesture fueled Scott’s resolve even more.

Late that night, Scott drug himself home. He had about three hours before he had to be back at work, making sure the generators supplying the Anza community were running smoothly. Seeing his own house, still in the dark, made his feet trudge a little bit slower.

Three hours before I’m back at it, he thought.

Inside Scott’s house, the smell of rotting food hit him. His fridge had been out for almost two days. Instead of immediately shucking off his work clothes and getting a few precious minutes of sleep, Scott cleaned out his fridge.

His three-hour window of sleep turned into two.

On Saturday, fire crews finally let Anza’s staff into the burn zone to inspect the damage. The fire in some places was still smoldering.

Scott’s lone utility truck crept through the crowd of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles toward the highway. Some rails were still on fire.

Driving up the highway toward the switch station at Mountain Center, Scott saw occasional chunks of burnt trees rolling down hills. The tops of some hollowed-out trees still burned like giant torches. Everything was ash-covered and gray or burned black.

“It looked like the apocalypse,” he says.

Eventually, he came across the first burnt-out power pole, and his fear spiked.

If this pole is burned, how many others are there? he thought to himself.

What he found once he was able to survey the entire area was that Anza’s poles had mostly been spared. The fire had claimed 126 of SCE’s poles and just three of Anza’s.

The Cranston Fire ultimately destroyed 12 buildings and devoured more than 13,000 acres.

Southern California Edison led the repair and rebuilding phase. The effort took 40 line-construction crews, 40 civil crews, 38 vegetation crews, 13 traffic-control crews, 16 damage assessment crews and three helicopters to deliver replacement poles to all the remote locations and difficult terrain.

Scott and Sandy averaged from 16 to 20 hours a day as they raced to get the power back on and keep it on as Anza rebuilt its system.

“It was stressful,” Sandy says. “We never had enough time to get everything done. Most days we didn’t have time to eat. But I enjoyed learning a lot of new skills, and the days seemed to fly by.”

Scott says that while the days were exhausting and the work was never-ending, he can look back on it now with fondness.

“I managed to enjoy every bit of it,” he says. “Because, from our GM all the way to our front-office gals, everyone on our team stepped up and came together. It was pretty amazing, and I’m glad I was a part of it.”