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California Wild Fires Blamed on Power Lines

Sep 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Poorly maintained power lines have been blamed for three destructive California wildfires that occurred last year. Now, state regulators are considering levying financial penalties against San Diego Gas & Electric and Cox Communications, the companies that owned the power lines.

 Power lines are not a frequent  cause of wildfires in the state - The New York Times reports that they are implicated in about 2 to 3 percent of such blazes.  But when power lines do cause wildfires, the results can be devastating.  That's because the lines sit on high towers located on remote, windy and hard-to-access terrain.

 A new report by investigators for the California Public Utilities Commission says that damaged power lines started last year's Guejito, Witch and Rice fires.  Those three fires, which occurred last October, burned more than 207,000 acres, destroyed 1,141 homes, damaged scores of others, killed 2 people and injured 40 firefighters.  According to The New York Times, the Utilities Commission's report echoes another released in July by the  California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

According to the report, the Guejito fire started when an improperly maintained Cox line came into contact with a San Diego Gas & Electric conductor. The Witch fire was attributed to two of the utility’s lines coming into contact, and the Rice fire began when a  tree limb, which investigators suggested should have been trimmed, fell onto a utility line.

The investigation also alleges that San Diego Gas & Electric obstructed the Commission's investigation by delaying access to witnesses, sites and other evidence.  "The S.D.G. & E. representative refused to answer specific questions about the fire/incident and informed me that he was only available to show me the site,” an inspector wrote of his visit to the scene of one of the fires.

The Utilities Commission now has to review the investigation's findings.  Once it does, the Commission could impose financial penalties against both Cox and San Diego Gas & Electric.

San Diego Gas & Electric already faces a lawsuit filed by the city of San Diego that blames it for the fires.  On Tuesday, the city's attorney told The New York Times that, because of the Commission's report, he would be adding Cox to the lawsuit.

Recently, a downed power line was cited as the cause of a fire in Malibu in October.  As a result, there have been calls by some to find ways to lessen power line dangers, including burying lines located in high risk areas.  But such a proposition is expensive. According to The New York Times, a study two years ago by the industry group Edison Electric Institute estimated that putting existing lines underground would cost around $1 million per mile.  Most of that expense, of course, would fall on rate payers, the group said.

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