By Diane Sieker
Writer 

Helicopters flying over Sage have residents on edge

 

Last updated 6/7/2019 at 2:23am

Courtesy photo

Southern California Edison performs aerial inspections of their electrical structures in high risk fire areas.

Sage residents have been on edge since the helicopters have started hovering low over their normally quiet environs. Concern even turned into panic on social media, as rumors of government spying spread like wildfire.

Attempting to stifle misinformation and find the cause of the aerial invasion, Sage Town Hall Association board members Bill Donahue and Lydia Dana started making calls.

They discovered that the helicopters were being used by Southern California Edison to conduct inspections of its electrical equipment in the community, and that this action would continue over the next few weeks. The aerial inspections of SCE's distribution facilities involve the use of helicopter and drones and only take place during daylight hours.

"We are doing this in all high fire risk areas – approximately 35% of our service area. We understand our activities may be disruptive when we do this important safety work and will do everything we can to minimize the impact to you and your community," Jeremy A. Goldman, government relations manager of local public affairs for SCE, said.


Sage Town Hall Association shared their findings via their Facebook page, but the rumors continued, with social media users claiming that the  California Department of Food and Agriculture was flying over properties searching for poultry that they would inevitably kill, as a result of the Virulent Newcastle disease bird quarantine.

"It never ceases to amaze me, just how many Facebook users will jump to conclusions and spread baseless rumors rather than take any steps to determine the truth," Donahue said. "Even after we at Sage Town Hall Association investigated the claims and posted accurate information there were still people who were posting conspiracy theories."

People were worried about possible privacy and Fourth Amendment rights violations by county, state and federal officials; however, the fact remains that the helicopters are being used by SCE for utility structure inspections.

"We would like to update everyone regarding the helicopter presence in the area," Dana said on the Sage Town Hall Association Facebook page. "Many residents were concerned that the helicopter was being chartered by CDFA in an attempt to ascertain which properties may house chickens, due to the current Virulent Newcastle disease outbreak. We have spoken at length with an agent from CDFA and been assured that the agency is not employing the use of helicopters in their efforts to eradicate Virulent Newcastle disease. Additionally, we were told that Edison is, indeed, currently surveying the 92544 and 92543 areas via helicopter, in an attempt to survey potential equipment issues or related fire hazards."


The Public Utilities Commission, which has regulatory authority over all utilities, has made it mandatory that all utility corporations must take steps to prevent accidental ignition within their systems. Structure inspection is part of this plan.

In a May 6, article written by SCE's Energized by Edison editor Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, aerial surveying was explained further.

"Aerial inspections using high-tech cameras mounted on a helicopter and software that geotags assets are being used throughout SCE's service territory in high fire risk areas. The cameras can detect invisible flaws using a radiometric infrared camera as well as visible issues using an high-definition imager," Aoyagi-Stom said. "The effort is part of the utility's Grid Safety and Resiliency Program, which includes additional measures, such as installing covered conductors, deploying weather stations and increasing tree trimming in high fire risk areas. SCE is also using Public Safety Power Shutoffs where the utility will shut off power during extreme weather that increases the risk of a fire."

The helicopter crew will focus on specific areas, poles, wires and cross-arms, searching for any signs of deterioration or damage. The camera records the images as the helicopter hovers over the structures. The high-resolution data from the inspection, including video and still photos, is then sent to a large database where it is categorized.


"Once back at SCE Air Ops in Chino, an inspection team from Transmission and Distribution then assesses the footage and data to determine the health of the equipment," she said. "If any issues are identified, a work order is filled out and a crew is then sent to make any necessary repairs or upgrades.

"In addition to the high-definition imagery, SCE is utilizing Infrared and Corona scanning and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a remote sensing method. The company is also looking at drones as part of this effort."

At this time, about 30,000 structures have been prioritized for inspection in high fire risk areas out of an estimated 400,000 structures throughout SCE's 50,000 square miles of service area. The goal is to complete these aerial inspections by the end of 2019, according to Goldman.

SCE has also contracted helicopters from Shier Aviation Corporation out of San Diego to aid in the surveys.

"Shier has verified conclusively with tail numbers that the two helicopters surveying in our area – 545 and 543, one red and white and one darker – are contracted by the power company. They urge anyone with concerns to call them directly at (800) 655-4555. The company has contracted with many government agencies and utility companies for years," Dana said.

"But once again, conspiracy theories and rumors abound on some local news sites and Facebook groups. I encourage everyone to simply make a phone call and verify information before falling victim to these sensationalized posts that attempt to fear monger without any fact finding," she said.

According to the Sage Town Hall Association, the Save Our Birds Facebook group, created in response to the eradication of healthy pet birds by the CDFA during the Virulent Newcastle disease quarantine, has allowed postings that claim that the helicopters are chartered by the United States Department of Agriculture to search residences that house poultry. This theory is due to the fact that Shier Aviation Corporation had previously contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in years past. The helicopter company works with many government agencies as well as public entities; however, Shier Aviation Corporation has confirmed that these two helicopters sighted over the Sage area are surveying for SCE.

Sage resident April Ziegler said, "I took it one step further and spoke with Jared Tapsfield with the Federal Aviation Administration in Riverside. He made some phone calls personally and confirmed that SCE is doing what's called 'Lidar surveying.' They are using helicopters. And after I spoke with him, I looked that up and read that drones are also used for that type of surveying. I told him what's going on and explained why I called. He then confirmed that they've been surveying in all the areas that we've been seeing helicopters."

"I also spoke to CDFA, who directly stated that they do not use helicopters or drones to actively search for properties that house poultry," Dana said.

For additional information about how SCE is addressing the threat of wildfires, visit sce.com/wildfire.

To learn more about the Sage Town Hall Association and receive updates, visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sagetownhall.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at [email protected]

 

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