SDG&E Faces Litigation From Last Fall’s Wildfires

By Published On: July 18, 2008

San Diego Gas & Electric power lines sparked three major wildfires last fall in San Diego County that caused loss of life and property while burning more than 200,000 acres, the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection concluded late last week. The department, known as Cal Fire, found that SDG&E lines arced in the wind, causing sparks and hot particles that ignited the massive Witch Fire. The blaze burned 197,990 acres, killed two civilians, and injured 40 firefighters. According to the state it burned down 1,141 homes, 509 outbuildings, and 239 vehicles. Cal Fire’s investigation also found that power lines coming into contact with a Cox Communications cable caused the Guejito Fire, which merged with the massive Witch fire. It damaged an additional 75 homes and 25 outbuildings. In a separate investigation, Cal Fire concluded that downed SDG&E lines caused the smaller 9,472 acre Rice Fire, which burned down 206 homes, two commercial properties, and 40 outbuildings. The state investigation findings come after San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre filed suit against SDG&E last month seeking recovery for damages to city property from the fires, as well as recovery of firefighting expenses. In response to the state findings, Aguirre called on the utility “to take immediate action to prevent another firestorm.” He wants the utility to install devices that automatically shut off power when lines break. “SDG&E must also do a better job at brush management,” he said. In a written statement, SDG&E said it “strives to maintain and operate our system safely.” It pointed out that no system “can be protected 100 percent from the kind of severe weather conditions we experienced last fall.” Winds were extremely high under Santa Ana conditions when the fires broke out. Since then, SDG&E said it is undertaking a number of steps to reduce fire risks, including replacing wood power poles with steel poles, keeping power lines de-energized after an outage until lines can be inspected when it is hot and dry, and expanding aerial inspections of power lines. The city attorney filed suit against SDG&E and its parent company, Sempra Energy, late last month in San Diego County Superior Court. The city attorney charged that SDG&E failed “to inspect, maintain, and manage” its transmission facilities so as to “reduce and/or eliminate the risk” that any problems in its system “could result in a fire.” Failure to do so constituted negligence, according to the June 19 complaint. The city is seeking recovery for expenses in fighting the fires, damage to city owned buildings and equipment, and worker compensation payouts to injured fire fighters and personnel. Following the fires, the utility petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission to amend its safety rules for electrical facilities, pointing to possible inadequacies. Earlier this spring the commission turned down the petition. However, it indicated it might revisit its rules after its own Consumer Protection and Safety Division completes an investigation of last fall’s wildfires. The division’s report is due by the end of this month.

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