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Utilities' trial by fire 

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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.

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