California: Utility Violations Led to Deadly Fires

September 4, 2008

Improperly maintained utility lines were to blame for three wildfires that swept through California’s San Diego County last fall, killing two people, destroying 1,347 homes, and forcing massive evacuations, state regulators said.

The California Public Utilities Commission said the October fires were started because San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Cox Communications violated state regulations regarding the maintenance of power lines.

Two of the fires started when utility wires touched in strong winds, the commission said in a report. A third started when a tree limb fell onto one of the utility’s power lines, the report said.

Two of the October fires merged to scorch more than 307 square miles, destroying 1,141 homes, killing two people and injuring more than 40 firefighters. The Witch Creek Fire was the largest of five major fires that ravaged San Diego County last fall, charring some 2,000 residences, causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and killing nine people.

The fire allegedly started by a tree limb destroyed 206 homes and burned more than 14 square miles.

The commission accused the utility of failing to cooperate with investigators who were sent to probe the wildfires, hindering the release of a more timely report.

The utility said regulators lack the evidence to support their claims. The utility also denied blocking access to its staff, saying employees were busy making repairs and re-establishing power when regulators first requested interviews.

San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre said he plans to add Cox Communications to the city’s lawsuit to recover $40 million in firefighting costs and damage to city property from SDG&E.

The utility is also fighting lawsuits from more than 300 fire victims.

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