Cal Fire report blames SDG&E
Union Tribune (2008-07-10) J Harry Jones Tony Manolatos
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Findings on wildfires implicate Cox lines, too
By J Harry Jones
and Tony Manolatos
July 10, 2008
A state report released last night says arcing San Diego Gas & Electric power lines ignited the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires, three of the most devastating wildfires that raged across San Diego County last October.
For the first time, Cox Communications is also implicated. The report, by Cal Fire, concludes that a loose support cable from one its fiber optic lines came in contact with a 12-kilovolt power line in the San Pasqual Valley, igniting the Guejito fire, which killed two people.
The report concludes the Witch Creek fire started when two 69-kilovolt power lines, swinging in the Santa Ana winds, contacted each other. A tanker pilot flying overhead shortly after the fire began reported seeing bluish arcing coming from the lines.
In addition, records show that one line near where the Witch Creek fire started faulted four times Oct. 21, meaning something had gone wrong.
“I believe hot particles were created when the lines faulted and landed in the light grassy fuels,” an investigator wrote.
The Rice Canyon fire in Fallbrook began in two spots on each side of Rice Canyon Road. Downed power lines were found in both spots. All other causes were eliminated.
Experts say the findings may be very important in determining liability. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. owns and maintains the power lines and the transformers.
“Cal Fire announced last November that power lines were involved in some of the October wildfires, so today's findings by the agency are not a surprise,” the utility said in a statement issued last night.
“We have been cooperating with Cal Fire in its investigation over the past nine months. Contrary to claims made by plaintiffs' attorneys, government reports, including the one issued by Cal Fire (yesterday), are not admissible in a court of law as evidence of liability.
“ . . . 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 report includes interviews with many witnesses and firefighters, some of them harrowing accounts of watching the fires spread and escaping from them. Firefighters described seeing bright lights that looked like lightning in the San Pasqual Valley when power lines shorted and the Guejito fire erupted. One firefighter described it as “a light show.”
“By the time we turned the engines around and moved down the road, it had already spotted across the road in several places,” Rob Wheatley, a fire captain, wrote.
At least nine lawsuits have been filed against SDG&E, representing hundreds of victims who lost their homes, ranches, orchards and farms.
Attorney Debra Hurst, who is representing nearly 300 people who lost homes and orchards, mostly in the Fallbrook area, said the report about the origin of the Rice Canyon fire confirms suspicions.
“What we've seen in our investigation so far is that it will be shown there were trees that were too close to those power lines and that the lines became entangled, causing them to come down,” Hurst said.
The city of San Diego has sued to recover losses sufferred in the Witch Creek and Guejito fires, and the state is expected to go after SDG&E to recover more than $20 million it spent fighting the blazes.
The Witch and Guejito fires, which merged near Rancho Bernardo, burned 198,000 acres, destroyed 1,141 homes and killed two people. The Rice Canyon fire, which began north of state Route 78 near Rice Canyon Road, burned 9,500 acres and destroyed 206 homes in Fallbrook, most west of Interstate 15.
All told, the October 2007 wildfires killed 10 people and destroyed 1,700 homes in San Diego County. No California county was hit harder.
The reports don't cover any of the other fires in San Diego County, such as the Harris or Poomacha fires. The Harris, which started Oct. 21 in Potrero, burned 90,000 acres, destroyed 253 homes and killed eight people.
Howard Windsor, Cal Fire's San Diego unit chief, said a campfire set by illegal immigrants ignited the Harris fire.
The Poomacha fire started Oct. 23 as a structure fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation, a Cal Fire spokesman said. It eventually scorched 49,000 acres and destroyed 138 homes.