Utilities' trial by fire

Your Turn

| October 24, 2012
Scott Hente
Scott Hente

It is 6 p.m. on June 23, 2012. The Waldo Canyon Fire has been raging throughout the day and now threatens the Cedar Heights neighborhood. The decision is made to make a stand at the utility service road on the north and west sides of the subdivision, and to create a large defensible space.

Colorado Springs Utilities employees, to include CSU's own Wildland Fire Team (made up of employee volunteers who are "red card"-certified firefighters), begin to bring in bulldozers and other heavy equipment. With flames licking at them and their equipment, the CSU employees begin creating a fire line. This effort continues throughout the night, constructing a three-mile line between homes in the community and the burning forest. The fire is effectively halted at this "dozer line," saving dozens of homes.

Fast-forward to 5:26 p.m. on June 26. Multiple fires are erupting throughout the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. And just when the Colorado Springs Fire Department and other firefighting agencies need it most, the Wilson water tank, located at the top of Mountain Shadows and supplying water to all the fire hydrants in the community, loses power due to severe fire damage to the overhead electrical wires and the underground service shorting out.

Although hydrants in the lower parts of Mountain Shadows continue to receive water as a result of being gravity-fed, the upper part of the neighborhood loses pressure to the hydrants. And the fire's intensity in upper Mountain Shadows continues to grow.

At this same time, members of the CSU Wildland Fire Team (whose logs and personal recollections allow me to reconstruct this narrative) are actively engaged with the Colorado Springs Fire Department in trying to save as many homes as possible. Because the CSU team includes employees who encompass all utility disciplines, there are electrical and water experts within the various four-person firefighter teams. One such team is directed, by the Incident Command Post, to try and reach the water tank and restore power to it.

Having only the equipment and limited water supply in their brush truck as their sole means of protection, this four-person team attempts to reach the water tank. Three times they are driven back by the fire's intensity, but on the fourth time they reach the tank. With homes burning around them, they finally restore power at 7:54 p.m. and, once again, firefighting efforts resume in upper Mountain Shadows.

Now, fast-forward to the present. Certain members of our city think there might be some value in selling all or part of Colorado Springs Utilities to a private entity. Forget that in 2009, the Sustainable Funding Committee (with a cross-section of private citizens) recommended against that. And forget that the same committee said:

"Regardless of the net amount realized through sale of Colorado Springs Utilities to an IOU [Investor Owned Utility], it is not considered adequate compensation for the loss of control of the asset by the City and the potential 30-40 percent rate increase following the sale."

Forget all of that. Just ask yourself, would a private utility or collection of utility companies have been as responsive as our own municipally owned utility was on June 23 and June 26? Would a private utility have had the cross-section of employees that our own four-service utility had within the Wildland Fire Team? And would a private utility have been as committed to battling through a hellish firestorm to create a fire line, or get to the water tank to restore service?

Our municipally owned utility company provides an intrinsic value to this community. And when someone says that our city might make a few bucks out of selling CSU, remind them of the hundreds of homes saved on June 23 and 26 (including mine) because CSU bulldozer crews worked through a nightmare of a night, creating a fire line. Or that four CSU employees managed to break through a raging fire and perform an absolute act of heroism in restoring electric service to the water tank.

And please remind them that the hundreds of homes saved also have a value.

Scott Hente, a member of Colorado Springs City Council since 2003, currently serves as president of Council and thus the Colorado Springs Utilities board of directors.


Comments (7)

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It's ironic that CSU is doubling down on burning more coal which is causing global warming. Global warming has and will continue to cause record summer temperatures and ultimately more wild land fires.

Finally, it is a non-sequitor to believe that a Investor Owned Utility would not have responded in the same way during an emergency. Wild land fires occur in San Diego and Los Angeles on a regular basis and the IOU's work promptly and professionally to restore service.

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Posted by Solar Sam on 10/24/2012 at 8:17 PM

Im Just wondering where all these green electric plug in cars are getting there power from ,are you thinking it's not from a coal power plant ? Coal is better than nuke or oil fired , and natural gas fired. Clean burning bag house type power plants Are more cost effective. I have owned four homes in Colorado Springs two with solar heat and hot water, it really can help offset utilities cost, however It is not an affordable option for many individuals. Did you know CSU ,actually goes to great lengths to educate how to save energy ,conserve water and be more green. They also own hydro plants at USAFA (co-op) and Manitou springs. Purchase wind energy, Did you know that cows also cause global warming.

There is no one right answer. But selling Drake or "moving" Martin drake
Is a bad idea and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out is
Kinda wasteful also!

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Posted by Dan LaChappelle on 10/24/2012 at 10:34 PM

Sam, this article pertained to the Waldo Canyon fire and the successful heroic efforts by employees of CSU to fight it. The last thing I heard was that the fire was probably started by humans. I'm not sure why you brought up global warming, or as others see it, cyclical weather changes seen throughout history.

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Posted by Kelly Abbott on 10/25/2012 at 7:58 PM

This article is about not selling the electric division to Xcel. By the way Xcel employees came to the Springs to help restore services. Hente forgot to mention that fact

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Posted by Solar Sam on 10/25/2012 at 9:59 PM

Solar Sam,
Per the reference to wildfire response in your first comment, you do realize that Los Angeles has a Municipal electric utility, right? Large, successful municipal utilities can be found across the country. Almost all are highly valued by their citizen-owners. Only in a far right wing wacko land like C. Springs are so many anxious to cleanse themselves of the sin of a City Owned Enterprise, despite its many benefits.

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Posted by Cajun on 10/26/2012 at 3:56 PM

So I wonder, how will selling a crown jewel of the city for a one time shot of cash benefit the citizens in the long run? Is it better than a constant annual stream of cash direct to the city's coffers ($31 million this year) with no "middleman" (i.e. shareholders)? I doubt it. And could the Koch brothers, who provided campaign funding to Mayor Bach, be involved?

How do constant rate hikes needed to pay distant shareholders concerned only with investment returns benefit our community?

In terms of service and rates, there is a similar situation in Pasadena CA and surrounding communities. Pasadena, like Colorado Springs, owns their electric company. Surrounding communities recieve power from an IOU. During a recent Santa Ana windstorm considerable damage occured. Who had the least amount of damage and fastest restoral of service? Why you guessed it, Pasadena with its city owned utility. For more information, see these articles written by Dr. John Grula in the Pasadena weekly.




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Posted by ColoSpgsNative64 on 10/26/2012 at 8:05 PM

The utilities were turned off by direction of the mayor and there was no water to keep 346 houses from burning...right, good job utilities department.

And the fire started when The DEA decided to burn some pot...so that is where everyone should look to cover their bank costs.

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Posted by TejonTech on 10/26/2012 at 11:01 PM
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