In the midst of untold human, property and ecological devastation in the week-long Southern California inferno, energy infrastructure and utility crews were stretched to the maximum last week. For the energy sector in the statem the brunt of the high winds and irrepressible flames was absorbed by the electricity infrastructure. Natural gas operations were virtually unscathed.

In both sectors the full extent of the impact at the ground level -- customer-by-customer -- will only begin this week when the bulk of the wildfires are allexpected to be under control. Last Friday optimism grew, but utility executives and state officials stressed a lot of assessment and restoration work lies ahead.

The corner was turned last Thursday as utilities and firefighters began to get the upper hand on an unprecedented series of wildfires that have left untold devastation on people and property from the Mexican border to Ventura County -- up to 17 separate major fires spread across seven counties -- nearly a million people displaced at least overnight, hundreds of thousands whose energy supplies were affected, more than $1 billion in losses, and the full assessment is just beginning. At least six people were killed.

With evacuation centers, including the San Diego Chargers football team's Qualcom Stadium, closing last Friday, the transmission system in San Diego County was brought back on line with all four power-import arteries operating as of 4 p.m. Thursday when the state grid operator lifted its emergency alert that has been in effect since last Tuesday.

While electric utilities scrambled daily to keep up with the wind-whipped wildfires' continuing fury, the natural gas distribution and transmission operations of Sempra Energy's two utilities in Southern California remained mostly unaffected, according to spokespersons for the two utilities, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and San Diego Gas Co. (SDG&E).

Sempra Energy, whose San Diego Gas and Electric Co. has seen more than 500,000 of its customers evacuated for some length of time, including many of its 13,500 employees in the state, announced late Thursday it established a $5 million relief fund to begin the flow of aid to those who suffered from the fires that scorched 700 square miles, destroying more than 1,800 homes. Sempra's shareholders put up the money.

Funds will go to aiding people in the service territories of its two utilities, SDG&E and Southern California Gas Co., which encompass the seven counties torched by the fires, many of which still burned Thursday night. The fund will be expanded with contributions from the utilities' suppliers, business partners and employees, Sempra said.

"For the more than 23 million Californians we serve and our 13,500 employees in the state, this week's wildfires have been devastating," said Sempra CEO Donald Felsinger. "We are committed to helping our customers, and the communities they live in, recover fully from this terrible natural disaster."

On the utility operations front, SDG&E said that the Southwest Powerlink north-south transmission line stayed intact Thursday, and it is "optimistic that this line will remain in service with no further threat from fire."

SDG&E completed what it called "the critical step" by reenergizing its three other 230-kV transmission lines connecting the utility to California's grid. "This completes the restoration of the two transmission corridors taken out of service by the fires," SDG&E said, and will allow the utility to begin work on the distribution system to restore service to communities affected by the fires.

Collectively, the Sempra utilities represent the largest natural gas distribution system in the nation, including one of the largest in-state transmission pipeline and underground storage operations, providing more than 130 Bcf of storage capacity.

"There's been no significant impact on the natural gas delivery system," according to a Los Angeles-based Sempra spokesperson, speaking for SoCalGas. "We're asking customers not to turn off their gas unless they smell gas, and we are assessing the damaged areas as police and fire authorities let our field workers back in. We'll be going into areas where homes have been destroyed or damaged and will turn off the gas in those areas.

"The assessments and shutoffs will continue into next week [Oct. 29-Nov. 2] most likely, particularly up in the mountains in the Lake Arrowhead area. As the fire department allows, we'll be going into those areas that have been burned and abandoning service."

Otherwise, the natural gas system overall operated reliably and safely, the utility said. The SoCalGas system includes two major underground storage facilities at depleted oil and gas production fields in the north end of Los Angeles County where up to three major wildfires have threatened major residential areas and disrupted transportation corridors. The Aliso Canyon and Honor Rancho storage fields account for more than 100 Bcf of the utility's capacity.

Late last Thursday night, SDG&E said that 15,000 customers were still without power, but that was half the number of outages earlier in the week. Some 1,640 customers were without natural gas service.

To the north, the situation had calmed in Orange, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Ventura counties enough for Edison to discontinue its twice-a-day operations reports. Early Thursday morning, SCE's outages were under 1,000, and those affected at some time over the past five days numbered just shy of 600,000 customers.

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