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Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 | CalFire tanker pilot Mike Venable had just finished reloading his airplane with flame retardant and was returning to fight the Harris Fire. It was just after noon on Oct. 21, 2007, the unforgettable Sunday when San Diego County turned into an inferno.

Venable had flown north from the Ramona airport when he spotted smoke. Down below, on the grasslands near Santa Ysabel, blue flashes were shooting up from power lines. Like tracers, Venable later told an investigator.

A fire was spreading under a stand of oak trees. Within minutes, the flames covered 20 acres. Dropping retardant didn’t work — the winds were too strong. Soon, another tanker pilot reported that the fire “blew up.” And so the 197,000-acre Witch Fire, which killed two people and destroyed 1,141 homes, was born.

Hours later, just after midnight, another spark. This time, a CalFire strike team was driving through the San Pasqual Valley near the Wild Animal Park. Winds gusted to 55 mph. The battalion chief, Suzanne Todd, saw what she later described as a “light show.” Overhead lines were knocking and sparking. And so the Guejito Fire, which soon merged with the Witch Fire, was born.

At 4 a.m. on Rice Canyon Road near Fallbrook, a third spark. Two residents looked outside to see a small fire burning on a power pole. They witnessed the birth of the Rice Fire, which burned 9,400 acres and damaged 206 homes.

Before they became all-engulfing nightmares, the fires that beset the region last October were little more than stray sparks, hot particles in the wrong place. And the sparks that gave birth to three of October’s eight fires came from the same source, according to two state investigations: San Diego Gas & Electric power lines.

That unifying point has put the region’s primary electricity provider — a subsidiary of one of San Diego’s few Fortune 500 companies — in the crosshairs of state regulators and hundreds of homeowners across the region who lost their houses.

Slowly and steadily since last October, San Diego Gas & Electric has emerged in a series of reports and lawsuits as a culprit in one of the biggest firestorms San Diego County has ever seen.

After the 2003 Cedar Fire, the region blamed one man: a lost hunter convicted of setting a signal fire that exploded out of control. In the wake of the 2007 blazes, the blame has fallen on one of the region’s most prominent companies.

The Maintenance Responsibility

Power lines are dangerous. That obvious fact means that San Diego Gas & Electric, which operates and maintains more than 8,000 miles of above-ground power lines in its service area, has a duty to care for those lines. The company must follow 565 pages of state regulations, which govern everything from tree trimming to how close wires can be strung together.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Protection & Safety Division said in a Sept. 2 report that SDG&E violated rules outlined in those regulations. The division also blamed Cox Communications, saying it violated the same provision. The report was the second this year to blame SDG&E’s power lines, CalFire released the first in July.

In the Rice Fire, the CPUC pointed to a sycamore branch that broke and fell into a power line. The CPUC said SDG&E knew the tree should have been trimmed back. In the Witch Fire, it pointed to two SDG&E lines that knocked together and began sparking. In the Guejito Fire, it pointed to a Cox Communications wire that slapped an SDG&E conductor and sparked.

“SDG&E is the villain,” Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a ratepayers advocate, wrote in an e-mail, “not only because its infrastructure contributed to at least three of the major fires but because of the steps that the company took to obstruct the CPUC investigation.”

The CPUC report singled out SDG&E for being uncooperative with investigators, saying the utility refused to provide immediate access to witnesses and evidence — instead directing questions to company attorneys. In a statement, SDG&E said its employees were too busy to meet with the fire investigators after the fires. “[A]ll SDG&E field personnel were working around the clock to keep the lights on for customers,” the company said.

Both SDG&E and Cox challenged the CPUC report’s supporting facts. The report, SDG&E said, “is full of speculation and faulty conclusions, with sparse evidence — if any — to support its claims.”

While July’s CalFire report documented the source of those stray sparks, the CPUC report went a step further, recommending several regulatory changes that could prevent similar fires in the future. It specifically points to risks posed by broken “lashing wires” — a thin wire that winds around several wires to bind them together.

The CalFire report blames a broken lashing wire that wound around two Cox wires for causing the Guejito Fire. An investigator found parts of the lashing wire came unraveled and slapped an SDG&E conductor in the gusty winds. The CPUC report recommends the state consider requiring telecom companies to conduct inspections with the same frequency as electric utilities.

The CPUC mandates extensive maintenance responsibilities for utilities. SDG&E spent about $96 million on them last year, replacing poles, trimming trees and fixing damaged equipment. Stephanie Donovan, an SDG&E spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the company has a crew of about 625 people who perform those tasks; the company also maintains a database of more than 400,000 trees that it monitors for compliance with state regulations. SDG&E crews trim as many as 180,000 trees annually, she said.

The reports have fueled the opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink, a 150-mile long transmission line SDG&E proposes to build between San Diego and Imperial County. The line is proposed to pass through areas such as Poway and Ramona and create an increase in fire risk that can’t be offset, according to a joint state-federal report on the project’s environmental impacts.

“For SDG&E, it’s unfortunate timing,” said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego. “It bolsters the argument that the (Sunrise) opposition is making that this could be a danger in the backcountry.”

SDG&E draws a distinction between its distribution lines and its transmission lines like the Sunrise Powerlink, which hang from larger steel lattices. Distribution lines were implicated in October’s fires, not transmission lines. The company says its high-voltage transmission lines are its most fire-safe.

SDG&E data shows that distribution lines cause most power line fires. Between 2004 and 2006, those lower-voltage lines caused 87 fires; the bigger transmission structures started nine fires.

The company says power lines start a tiny fraction of the state’s overall fires. CalFire statistics show that 2 percent of the state’s fires in 2006 were power-line induced. Four of the 20 largest fires in California history trace their origins to power lines, according to CalFire, including the Witch Fire and 1970 Laguna Fire in San Diego County.

That has not satisfied opponents.

“There is a potential for fire,” said Joseph Mitchell, a spokesman for the Mussey Grade Road Alliance, a Sunrise opponent. “And if the past is an indicator of the future, that is the best predictor we have.”

The Legal Arguments

Those who lost their homes in last October’s fires have so far only pointed at SDG&E, not Cox, arguing that the electric utility failed to properly care for its lines. Hundreds have joined to file suit against SDG&E. A legal expert said the plaintiffs must prove that SDG&E could have expected the risks that Santa Ana winds posed.

“The question is what is reasonably foreseeable and what steps would a reasonable person have taken?” said Janet Bowermaster, professor at California Western School of Law. “If they breach that duty by not doing something a reasonable person would have done, and if that can be shown to have caused the fires, then they may be liable.”

Utilities have been held liable for fire damages before — both criminally and civilly. Pacific Gas & Electric was found criminally liable for a 1994 fire because it had not properly trimmed vegetation around its power lines. SDG&E settled several suits after the 1993 Guejito Fire burned 20,000 acres around Escondido.

Attorneys for homeowners whose houses were destroyed argue that the company breached its duty by failing to properly maintain vegetation around its lines. City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has also filed suit to recover the city’s firefighting costs, says the utility should have expected problems during dry, gusty Santa Ana conditions. None of the plaintiffs have specified any damages; SDG&E is protected by a $1 billion insurance policy.

“You can’t expect SDG&E to be perfect,” said Todd Macaluso, an attorney representing 300 homeowners. “But if it’s a matter of routine maintenance, they need to be held accountable for it. And they need to make sure in the future this doesn’t happen — that they prevent these fires from starting.”

The company argues that other factors fueled the fires. In a statement released after the July CalFire report, the utility didn’t deny that the sparks came from its wires. Instead, it pointed to the extreme weather and adequacy of firefighting efforts. In court filings, the company calls the fires an act of God and “an unavoidable accident.”

Donovan, the SDG&E spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the company is taking steps to reduce future risk. When power line interruptions occur during Santa Ana conditions, the company will inspect the line before turning the power back on. The company has replaced 200 wood poles with steel poles, increasing the clearance between lines and using heavier wire on its transmission lines through rural areas. Four hundred more steel pole replacements are planned this year, she said.

Donovan said the company is adjusting to a fire season that has become year-round. “Historically, we’ve operated our system in a manner similar to other utilities across the U.S.,” she wrote. “What we face today in California is different.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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