(Updated 3:10 p.m., Tuesday, October 9, 2007.)

Copper thieves plunged thousands of residents into darkness Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning, Southern California Edison shut down power to 13,850 customers in Hesperia, after workmen discovered a safety system at the unmanned Sultana Street and G Avenue substation had been vandalized by thieves stealing 300 feet of copper ground wire.

"It wasn't just sitting there, it was actually performing a function at the substation," said company spokesman Steven Conroy.

The wire, part of a "safety grounding system," serves to cut the electricity in downed power lines. With the wire gone, any downed power lines would remain hot and a deadly hazard.

And so, at 11:07 a.m., the lights went out in Hesperia.

"From a safety standpoint, it was absolutely necessary for us to do that," Conroy said. "It's not a risk we're willing to take."

The decision led to a certain degree of chaos in the city, with traffic lights out in much of the city, and schools, businesses and homes going dark.

"Edison doesn't notify the city of anything," Mayor Rita Vogler said, taking time out from a Hesperia Kiwanis meeting at a now-darkened Carrows restaurant at Main Street and I Avenue. "That's going to change, that's going to change. This is the post-9/11 era."

City officials contacted residents and businesses via their automated Connect CTY telephone service around noon, apprising them of the situation.

Conroy said the company had notified the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department ahead of time, as well as "critical care customers" who require electricity to keep breathing apparatus and other medical equipment functioning.

Hesperia Unified School District schools stayed in session, although principals at each site had the option of releasing students. Electricity to schools on the east side of town began to be restored before noon.

"They're slowly but surely coming back on," said Chief Bob Mosley, of the HUSD police department. "The kids and staff are all handling it really well."

No traffic accidents were reported during the affected area of the city during the time streetlights were without power, according to Hesperia sheriff's station spokeswoman Roxanne Walker.

By 12:18 p.m., an hour and 11 minutes after the blackout started, power had been routed from other area substations and the lights came back on, even as repair work continued at Sultana and G.

The sheriff's department is investigating the theft and has no suspects at this time. During the height of Hesperia's construction boom in recent years, copper thefts were a regular occurrence, with the culprits typically disposing of the brittle copper wire by snapping it into smaller pieces and selling it to recycling centers.

"This is a continuing problem, one we're very aware of, and we're working with local law enforcement," Conroy said.

It was the second time in five days that portions of the city had lost electricity: Hesperia's civic center, including the branch library and city hall, had lost power for much of the day on Friday.

Special thanks to Hillary Borrud for posting the initial version of this report while the Star office was still without power.
Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.