News 8 Investigation: SDG&E Could Be Liable For Power Line Wildfires
11-02-07 at 6:27PM Watch Video
For 79-year-old cattle rancher Jim Wood, Oct. 21 was a bad day. It was the day the massive Witch Fire started near his property line. Jim remembers those Santa Ana winds blowing hard near high voltage power lines.
"When the winds were blowing hard, they're swinging. It scares you to go under them," Jim said.
Jim and his son Jeff took News 8 to the place where Cal Fire investigators were trying to track down the point of origin.
The Witch Fire destroyed 1,100 homes, scorched 200,000 acres and did $1 billion in damages.
Jeff and Jim say there's no question in their minds what started the Witch Fire. The 69,000 volt SDG&E power line has been in their back yard for at least 50 years.
"I'm not an inspector, but for just a regular guy, looking up at that line, it looked pretty scary to me," Jeff Wood said.
News 8 found Cal Fire investigators on site, underneath the SDG&E power lines. Right now, Cal Fire will only confirm that the cause of the fire is related to the power lines. One theory - Santa Ana winds blew the lines together, causing them to collide and arc, dropping sparks onto the dry brush below.
We asked utility watchdog Michael Shames if that means SDG&E could be held liable for damages from the fires.
"SDG&E has the ability to maintain separators between lines so they don't hit in strong wind," he said. "If they failed to do that in violation of state rules, then SDG&E could be responsible for costs caused by the fire."
That includes not only the $1 billion in property damage, but also the cost of fighting the Witch Fire, currently estimated at $16 million.
"SDG&E is very worried. They no doubt have their own fire investigators out there to protect them," Shames said.
Because the investigation is ongoing, SDG&E declined to be interviewed about its potential liability for the recent fires.
The company did release a statement to News 8. It reads, in part:
""In extreme weather conditions... power lines can serve as an ignition source.... We maintain and operate our system safely, in compliance with stringent state regulatory requirements. No electric system can be completely protected from such severe weather."
Colliding power lines are also being blamed for starting the Guejito Fire just east of the Wild Animal Park. San Pasqual Fire Captain Lou Ortiz actually witnessed SDG&E power lines arcing.
"It was just a blue spark, a blue light - two distinct lights," Lou Ortiz said.
The Guejito Fire killed two people, then merged with the Witch Fire and moved into Rancho Bernardo.
"The wires, there is a little bit of slack, so when the wind is blowing through them, it's causing them to move. And if they come close enough they can arc," Ortiz said.
Still, the San Pasqual assistant fire chief says it's not fair to blame SDG&E.
"In winds like that, lines are going to go, transformers are going to blow. What can [SDG&E] do about it? It's kind of like an act of God," San Pasqual Assistant Fire Chief Dawn Pettijohn said.
SDG&E power lines spark about 30 brush fires per year in San Diego County, and two power lines per year on average during wind storms, according to the company's own data. That's not including the most recent string of wildfires.
"There is something you can do to stop it. Don't put the power lines there, or design the power lines to deal with much stronger winds than you have historically done," Shames said.
SDG&E power lines also may have caused the recent Rice Canyon Fire that destroyed 200 homes near Fallbrook. A North County fire chief told News 8 that downed power lines on Rice Canyon Road are to blame.
Jack Clough lives right next door to where the 12,000-volt lines snapped.
"If you go on up the road in both directions, all the lines are engulfed with these trees, and it's just an accident waiting to happen," he said.
By state law, trees must be cleared four feet away from power lines, but there are complicated exceptions to these rules. SDG&E uses a subcontractor to trim the trees, so the question of who's to blame here may end up in court.
In the end, the liability could be passed on to all SDG&E ratepayers.
"If SDG&E were found to be liable, SDG&E would try to recoup those costs from its customers - in many cases the same people who were damaged in the fires," Shames said.
SDG&E is also worried about the effect these wildfires could have on the company's plan to build a huge new power line through the backcountry.