Power shutoffs during fires pose safety risk for gated communities, Encinitas fire chief says


Shutting off power in high-fire-risk places such as Olivenhain during hot, windy weather may help reduce the spread of wildfires, but it can make it difficult for people to get out of gated communities, Encinitas’ top fire official told the City Council Wednesday, Nov. 13.

Fire Chief Michael Stein said the issue came to his attention late last month when San Diego Gas & Electric Co. cut power to thousands of customers in San Diego County, including people in Olivenhain on the eastern edge of Encinitas. That area is more rural than the rest of town and contains a number of gated housing developments as well as individual homes on large lots with gates.

When the power shutoff order was issued, Encinitas already was in the process of updating its current city fire codes, but Stein said Wednesday, Nov. 13, that he now was recommending some “minimal, but important” new edits based on his concerns about power shutoffs.

His key recommendation was a requirement that all electric-powered, residential gates in high-fire-hazard areas install battery-powered backup systems, so they can be easily opened even when the power’s been turned off.

The council agreed to support the recommendations, but asked him to return with more information about the gate issue. Several council members said they could even support going one step farther and require that all gates remain open during peak fire-hazard periods.

“My preference is (that) it would have to be open and just stay open,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear said, adding that she believes that regional fire danger issues will only increase in the coming years and “we need to adapt” given the forecasts of rising global temperatures.

Councilman Tony Kranz said he understands that some people like to live behind gates, but said he thought the city could make a good argument for an open-gates requirement, if it only applied to times when San Diego Gas & Electric has decided to shut off the power because of wildfire concerns.

Councilwoman Jody Hubbard said she supported such a requirement when there was more than one home behind a gate, but said that if it’s just one home, then the occupants should be allowed to make their own decision. The city could instead “strongly suggest” that they leave their gate open, she said.

Two people who live along a private road near the end of Lone Jack Road urged the council to hold off on the proposed changes, saying the city needs to do more research about the gate issue. Their property is behind two gates controlled by neighboring property owners, and they’ve had troubles with both the battery backup systems and mechanical override options, Ginger and Camille Perkins said.

“We’ve been locked in by our neighbor’s gates multiple times in emergencies,” Camille Perkins said, later adding, “there have been very, very close calls.”

Ginger Perkins said she’s lived in her home since the 1950s -- long before the gates were installed -- and she can’t physically open the neighbors’ gates and she fears having to flee her home in a wildfire.

The new fire code revisions were among a series of city code changes the council supported Wednesday, Nov. 13. Other changes included a new regulation that bars people from having more than six dogs on a residential property.

Hubbard said she discovered the city didn’t really have a clear limit on dog ownership after a resident contacted her with a dog complaint. The new limit of six dogs or less matches what’s most commonly done in other communities, city staff members said.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune