By about 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, all electrical power had been restored to Hill communities. Just before noon Thursday, Dec. 7, Southern California Edison had shut power off from Anza to Twin Pines.
“This is extraordinary action which we don’t take lightly,” said SCE Media Relations Manager Mary Ann Milbourn. “We turned off the electricity in anticipation of the high winds.”
Public safety concerns drove the extreme action. Beginning Sunday, Dec. 3, the National Weather Service had issued both High Wind warnings and Red Flag alerts for Southern California, including the San Jacinto Mountains.
While some high winds passed down the San Jacintos, the fire dangers remained much further west along the coast. However, by Wednesday, Dec. 6, the wind speeds began to grow and were easily felt locally.
The wind strength began to break and blow over trees throughout the Hill. Wednesday night, a tree fell over power lines along Saunders Meadows Road. Early Thursday, the top of a dead pine toppled onto Tollgate Road. Both of these fallen trees were easily cleaned up and power quickly restored.
As Thursday morning moved toward noon, the wind strengthened and more trees were falling and breaking — on South Circle Drive, Memory Lane and elsewhere.
On Wednesday night, wind speeds were 35 mph in Mountain Center and 38 mph in Pine Cove. Just before the decision to shut off all power, speeds had increased to 43 mph in Pine Cove and 46 at Mountain Center. At 6 p.m. Thursday, wind speed was 52 mph at Mountain Center and 44 in Pine Cove.
As the number of trees falling and endangering power lines increased, SCE made the decision to turn off all power in Hill communities. Unlike the company’s urban and suburban areas, the Hill is mostly forest. Many dead and dying trees from bark-beetle infestation, oak borer or drought are still standing and the threat for a downed line creating a fire here during the wind event was too great of a chance for public safety officials to take.
Consequently, at 11:47 a.m. Thursday, power was shut down from Anza north to Twin Pines. SCE made a unilateral decision to shut the power off. Local fire officials were notified that it was going to occur, but were not consulted about the decision.
“I was notified of the impending outage from the County Supervisors’ office before Edison contacted me,” wrote Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz. “It was my understanding that Edison made the decision for the safety of all and the fire danger. … but it was the right decision to make for all the right reasons. As inconvenient as it was, it was the right decision.”
In a note to the Town Crier, Milbourn wrote, “Southern California Edison has shut off power to the Idyllwild area in Riverside County at 11:47 a.m. today due to severe weather conditions. This action is being taken due to safety concerns for customers in the region.
“The power shut off is now in effect and will continue until local conditions improve and crews determine it is safe to re-energize lines.
“SCE understands the inconvenience of shutting off electric service and is currently notifying customers in the area. SCE is informing local and public safety officials of the outage,” she concluded.
The number of customers suddenly without power was 3,117, according to SCE. By late Friday night, all power had been restored. This included Anza Electric Cooperative customers.
Many local businesses were caught unexpectedly. But several, such as Idyllwild Brewpub, Lumber Mill, Mile High Cafe, Mountaintop Liquor, Red Kettle and Village Market — had generators to provide power and enable them to remain open and serving the public. (There may have been others with generators, too.)
The lack of power on the Hill was not a secret. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department sent several deputies to patrol the area. Other public-safety agencies who increased their local staffing during the outage were the California Highway Patrol and the Mr. San Jacinto State Park.
Due to fire threat, Idyllwild School Principal Matt Kraemer had already requested that the district send four buses to the school in case a sudden evacuation were ordered.
While wind strength and frequency diminished during Thursday night and Friday morning, power restoration was not as easy and quick as shut down.
Edison had to “physically inspect every line before it could be re-energized,” Milbourn explained. If a tree or limb was on a line, restoring power might cause sparks that would ignite a fire, which is what the power outage was trying to prevent.
Because the outage was initiated late in the day, crews couldn’t check the lines during the night because of the Hill’s terrain, Milbourn said. “They couldn’t see if there were a problem.”
Crews explored the Hill all day Friday checking lines. By early afternoon, some power began to come back in the business area of Idyllwild. Over the rest of the afternoon, more areas recovered.
By 5 p.m., the estimate of when power would be restored, nearly 95 percent of the Hill did have power. Restoration to the remaining areas continued during and after the dinner hours until about 8:30 p.m. when the upper areas of North Circle Drive and Fern Valley brightened.