Fires spawn lawsuits, possible charges against SDG&E
North County Times (2008-07-10) Dave Downey
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By DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer
Lawsuits and possible misdemeanor criminal charges confront San Diego Gas & Electric Co. now that state officials have concluded its power lines sparked two blazes that merged to become the fourth-largest wildfire in state history.
Several suits have been filed on behalf of hundreds of people who lost their homes in the Witch Creek and Guejito fires, which merged and torched nearly 200,000 acres, and the 9,472-acre Rice fire.
The three blazes destroyed nearly 1,400 homes and were blamed for two deaths.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a report released late Wednesday that state laws requiring the trimming of vegetation around power lines to prevent fires were violated. Agency spokeswoman Janet Upton said Thursday that misdemeanor violations against the utility are being pursued.
Utility officials stressed the state report does not prove the utility was negligent.
"Contrary to claims made by plaintiffs' attorneys, government reports, including the one issued by Cal Fire
today, are not admissible in a court of law as evidence of liability," the company said in a statement.
"The report may not be, but the evidence sure is," retorted Tom Tosdal, a San Diego attorney representing 330 fire victims from Ramona to Rancho Santa Fe. Another suit represents 200 property owners in the Fallbrook area.
Tosdal added that "the report is very comprehensive and lays the fault for the Witch Creek fire entirely at the feet of SDG&E."
In its report, forestry and fire protection officials conclude winds that reached more than 80 mph slapped overhead wires against each other, sending showers of sparks into dry grass below on a Ramona-area ranch to start the 198,000-acre Witch Creek fire.
Investigators also found that the Guejito fire was triggered when a power line and cable TV wire came into contact in the San Pasqual Valley.
In each case, the power lines were owned by San Diego Gas & Electric.
The cable television wire was owned by Cox Communications.
Cox Communications spokeswoman Ceanne Guerra released a statement saying the company should not get the blame.
"Nothing in the Cal Fire
report suggests Cox was at fault in the starting of this fire. ... Our fiber optic lines are not electric cables, and do not carry electrical current to start a fire."
The investigators also determined that downed power lines sparked the Rice fire, along Rice Canyon Road north of Highway 76.
The lawsuits were filed against the utility after an initial state investigation determined that power lines were a factor in the three blazes. That probe, however, did not have a conclusive finding about the role the wires played.
SDG&E officials maintain the primary culprit was the wind and not their power lines.
"The extreme weather last October ---- especially the hurricane-force Santa Ana winds ---- was a major factor in the fires and in the damage to our facilities, which Cal Fire
investigators have said became ignition points for three of the fires," the company said in a statement.
The utility also dismissed the notion that the grid could be designed to avoid starting fires in high wind.
"No electrical power system can be protected 100 percent from the kind of severe weather conditions we experienced last fall," the utility stated.
Company officials said they are considering replacing wood poles with steel ones, increasing the distance between wires and using heavier wires in rural areas, as well as expanding routine aerial inspections. They also said they are going to change the procedure for restoring power during wind-caused outages.
"We'll restore power only after we've visually inspected the line and determined it is safe to do so," the company stated.
Tosdal, the attorney, suggested the utility should have placed wires farther apart long ago, given the inevitable Santa Anas every fall.
"They're not supposed to bang into each other," he said. "Winds are a fact of life in this county."
The Witch Creek fire was reported by air tanker pilot Mike Venable at 12:29 p.m. on Oct. 21 in the Witch Creek area, midway between Ramona and Santa Ysabel. The pilot also reported seeing bluish sparks shooting from the colliding overhead wires.
At 1 a.m. Oct. 22, Cal Fire
Battalion Chief Suzanne Todd saw an arcing power line and fire in the San Pasqual Valley, along Guejito Creek south of Highway 78 and a quarter-mile west of Bandy Canyon Road. The Guejito fire, as that blaze would be called, spread rapidly on the strength of Santa Ana winds and merged with the Witch Creek fire.
According to the report, the combined blaze destroyed 1,141 homes, 509 out-buildings and 239 vehicles in Rancho Bernardo, Escondido and Poway, and damaged 102 structures. The blaze was blamed for two deaths in Poway and for the injuries 45 firefighters suffered.
The Rice fire broke out at 4:16 a.m. Oct. 22 along Rice Canyon Road in Rainbow. It torched nearly 1,000 acres of agricultural groves in Fallbrook and destroyed 240 homes.
Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 745-6611, Ext. 2623, or firstname.lastname@example.org