Over­head power lines a prob­lem in 1925 Santa Bar­bara earth­quake, fire

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Local - BY LIZ AND DAN KRIEGER

“All wires in a ra­dius of many blocks were down. Our en­gi­neer at the power plant, by a great act of hero­ism, pulled the switch; but if that had not been done, flee­ing peo­ple would have been in grave dan­ger.”

In 1925, famed ar­chi­tect Ju­lia Mor­gan warned of the dan­ger of above­ground elec­tric lines as she wit­nessed the af­ter­math of an earth­quake and the re­sult­ing fires that de­stroyed Santa Bar­bara.

She was hired to de­sign the Mar­garet Bay­lor Inn, a ho­tel for young pro­fes­sional women at 924 Anacapa St. In the wee morn­ing hours of June 29, 1925, Mor­gan ar­rived on a busi­ness trip to Santa Bar­bara.

She recorded her ex­pe­ri­ence in the Berke­ley­based jour­nal, Ar­chi­tect and En­gi­neer.

She missed a taxi at the train sta­tion and de­cided to walk to the Car­rillo Ho­tel. “As I stood rest­ing, I saw fine white dust com­ing from a brick build­ing nearby, the same white dust which I had seen come out of the chim­ney near my room in San Fran­cisco [in 1906].

“The shock came, threw me down on my knees. I crawled on my knees into the street un­til I felt the car tracks and then worked my way down through the blind­ing dust to a place in front of an auto salesroom.”

She watched fam­i­lies flee­ing along State Street, try­ing to avoid the shards of plate glass from store win­dows.

“It was,” she noted, “a great prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“I was im­pressed with the fact that the great­est men­ace was from elec­tric wires. No mat­ter at what ex­pense all wires in pub­lic streets in Cal­i­for­nia should be un­der­ground.”

Miss Mor­gan’s con­cerns with over­head power lines haven’t had much im­pact on the re­al­i­ties of city and re­gional plan­ning over the past 93 years.

There weren’t the vast num­ber of long-range high volt­age lines in 1925, but she would cer­tainly share a con­cern for them had they ex­isted.

We think of the re­cent fire in Par­adise, caused by prob­lems with long-range over­head elec­tric trans­mis­sion lines, and even the lower volt­age over­head lines all around our homes in San Luis Obispo.

We need to learn from the re­peated ex­am­ples that his­tory has pro­vided.

Since the be­gin­nings of per­ma­nent hu­man set­tle­ments in cities and towns, a va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral and hu­man dis­as­ters have over­taken Mo­henjo Daro, an an­cient In­dus Val­ley Civ­i­liza­tion, the Mayan cities and Pue­blo/Anasazi sites, and weren’t re­built. Oth­ers, the vast ma­jor­ity, were re­built, some­times a dozen or more times.

If the sur­round­ing land has strate­gic or eco­nomic value, dwellings will be re­built. Like the cities of the At­lantic and Gulf coasts, San Fran­cisco af­ter its many earth­quakes and fires, and even smaller and more re­mote towns like Par­adise.

As tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops, some­times, “smart re­build­ing” takes place.

Fi­nan­cial re­sources per­mit­ting, post-hur­ri­cane struc­tures re­flect the lessons learned, with el­e­vated liv­ing quar­ters and pas­sages for the ebb and flow of tidal surges.

We doubt that the re­built city of Par­adise will in­cor­po­rate the traf­fic flow re­stric­tive el­e­ments of the “Delft Plan” that city lead­ers en­cour­aged a few years ago, which so greatly hin­dered the evac­u­a­tion of the area.

One les­son, al­beit a ter­ri­bly costly one, that needs to be in­cor­po­rated is un­der­ground power lines, most es­pe­cially the high volt­age trans­mis­sion lines that seem to have caused sev­eral of the worst fires.

Downed power lines were a haz­ard in the 1933 “Long Beach Earth­quake,” the 1952 Te­hachapi tem­blor, the 1971 “Syl­mar Quake,” the 1987 Whit­tier dis­as­ter, the 1989 Loma Pri­eta tragedy and the 1994 Northridge quake, long be­fore the dis­as­ters of last year’s Thomas Fire and the Camp Fire.

It’s a long over­due pub­lic safety is­sue where be­ing “penny wise and pound fool­ish,” to quote Ben­jamin Franklin, trans­lates into thou­sands of hu­man tragedies.

This col­umn is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a re­tired chil­dren’s li­brar­ian, and Dan is Pro­fes­sor of His­tory, Emer­i­tus at Cal Poly State Uni­ver­sity, San Luis Obispo. He is past Pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Mis­sion Stud­ies As­so­ci­a­tion, now part of the Cal­i­for­nia Mis­sions Foun­da­tion. He can be reached at slo­his­[email protected]

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Santa Bar­bara’s State Street af­ter the June 29, 1925, tem­blor.

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