Calif. Cable Operators Battle the Blazes' Impact


As wildfires continued to rage in California, cable operators had begun recovery efforts from the state's most costly disaster.

Damage estimates as of Friday had already topped $2 billion with 20 lives lost, along with nearly 1 million acres burned.

Thousands of homes, most of them in San Diego County, were fully or partially burned. Multiple fires roared out of control the week of Oct. 26, due to a deadly combination of high winds, drought-stricken brush, trees killed by a beetle infestation and, in some cases, arson.

Charter Communications Inc. lost an office in Rimforest in the San Bernardino Mountains, and workers were still waiting late last week to be able to return to mountaintop communities of Crestline, Cedar Springs and Lake Arrowhead to see if their homes were still standing.

Charter is preparing aid plans for homeless employees, said Craig Watson, communications vice president for Southern California. He said the mountaintop operations center apparently survived, so Charter should be able to restore service, with at least retransmission of off-air signals within hours of workers' return to the mountain.

Restoring digital service, via an interconnection to Charter's Hesperia system, would take longer. Also of major concern was a continuing blaze headed toward Hesperia.

Charter will lay plant on the ground, if necessary, to restore service to surviving homes in areas now without phone poles. In-house technicians and subcontractors were standing by, awaiting a go-ahead to re-enter the resort communities on Oct. 31.

In another part of Southern California, Charter's San Bernardino County operation lost seven nodes early in the week from another fire, which claimed 350 homes, along with damage to 20,000 feet of fiber optic cable. By Oct. 30, six of seven had been at least 80% restored. One node might be out until Nov 7.

In San Diego County, Time Warner Cable serves the Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta neighborhoods, which lost 1,000 to 1,500 homes.

Cox Communications Inc. lost fewer customer homes, but was hard-pressed to repair and reroute network operations to ensure its telephony customers maintained lifeline service.

Both operators kept service going while dealing with their own evacuations. Time Warner had to bug out of a Miramar office the weekend of Oct. 25. Cox's giant customer-service center, a former Costco store, was evacuated twice as flames came within 100 feet of the structure.

When Cox employees were forced to leave, service calls were forwarded to centers as far away as Oklahoma, executives said.

Even when employees could work in the center, air quality was a real problem, as smoke was sucked into the building.

Still, less than 3% of the plant was nonfunctional at any one time, said Dan Novak, vice president of programming and communications. Trouble came in neighborhoods that were evacuated or totally destroyed. Technicians worked during the conflagration to fix damage as the fire passed.

San Diego vice president and general manager Bill Geppert "has been out there taking water and food to our fiber crews, driving through these devastated canyons," Novak said. "Sometimes our crews are working right next to those digging through the remains of their homes. It's been very hard."

The Time Warner system used its Web site to notify customers that its own employees were being evacuated or could not get to work because of road closures. The system rescheduled installations and other nonemergency truck rolls to focus on disaster recovery and system maintenance.

Despite the threat to their personal property, nearly all employees showed up for work Oct. 27, marveled Jeff Schwall, president and CEO of the San Diego division.

By the end of the week, employees were validating addresses to determine how many serviceable homes were lost, he said. Damage was miraculously light: What appeared to be four lost nodes was really plant that had lost power or had short-circuited in the heat, he said.

Both San Diego operators have moved into community-service mode. A one-stop center was set up in Scripps Ranch, where the homeless could meet with federal disaster assistance officials, insurance companies and other providers. Time Warner quickly provided that facility with high-speed data lines to aid workers. Cable customers could also use terminals for free Internet access.

Cox, in partnership with broadcaster KGTV, donated $15,000 to the local Red Cross. Cox is also notifying displaced telephony customers they can get service benefits including such as free call forwarding and voicemail for 18 months, and e-mail addresses will be reserved for that period, awaiting their return.

Cox also partnered with KUSI in San Diego to expand carriage of that station's live fire coverage into the Orange County system. The Orange system normally carries Los Angeles stations, which focused on coverage of the fires there. KUSI provides information for viewers more interested in the San Diego stories.

The carriage ended when the station dropped live, continuous coverage, Novak said.

Other regional operators, including Adelphia Communications Corp. and Comcast Corp., reported little damage and were able to focus on community support, too.

Adelphia produced a public-service announcement with participation of the Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross, soliciting donations for five victims. It began to run across Adelphia's five-county region on Nov. 1. Systems also cut away from CNN Headline News with local fire news and evacuation updates in systems including Carlsbad and Ventura County.

Adelphia worked around the clock with emergency officials to provide up-to-date information on its text-only and local origination channels.

Comcast lost only about 12 homes in its Claremont system before the fire climbed up into the mountains. Comcast designated a single point of contact for homeless customers, so that consumers could expeditiously cancel accounts and set up forwarding addresses, regional spokesperson Patricia Rockenwagner said.

Operators remained wary because fires continued to burn as of deadline on Friday.

But as the sun rose that day, gentle rains and some snow came to the region, giving hope the fires might soon be contained.