Power line sent SDG&E warnings before fire began
Union Tribune (2008-07-11) J Harry Jones
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Utility's new policy requires inspections
By J. Harry Jones
July 11, 2008
Exactly 3½ hours before an arcing power line ignited the Witch Creek fire early in the afternoon of Oct. 21, San Diego Gas & Electric received a warning that something was wrong with one of its lines strung between two poles in a remote area southwest of Santa Ysabel.
One hour and one minute before the fire started, a second “fault” warning was sent from the same power line.
Just after noon, a third warning was issued. A few minutes later, a Cal Fire tanker pilot flying overhead saw bluish flames arcing from the line and a one-acre brush fire under it.
Based on conversations with several of the more than 50 lawyers now involved in lawsuits against the utility, it appears that a major issue in the coming court battle over who is to blame for the fire will be why SDG&E didn't check the power line that morning and why, given the dangerous weather conditions, the power wasn't shut off before the fire began.
Cal Fire's report on the causes of three of October's most destructive fires, released Wednesday night, documents the “fault” warnings but does not make conclusions.
In a statement yesterday, SDG&E said “because all of these matters will be thoroughly addressed in open court, we do not think it is appropriate to discuss them in detail in the media at this time.”
“Many factors contributed to the damage wrought by the October wildfires, including weather conditions, the adequacy, timeliness and coordination of fire-fighting resources among agencies at the local, state and federal levels – and whether governments and agencies could have done more to control or prevent the fires and protect public safety.”
The utility also said shutting down power lines during firestorm conditions is “a significant step because of the widespread effect of shutting down facilities essential to public safety such as water pumps, traffic lights, household lighting, critical home medical devices, and information sources like television, radio and the Internet.”
In a statement issued Wednesday night in response to the Cal Fire report, the utility said it is changing its procedures during hot, dry weather. Instead of allowing a line to re-energize automatically after a fault is reported, it will restore power only after the line has been inspected.
The Witch Creek fire, combined with the Guejito fire that merged with it early in the morning of Oct. 22, burned 197,900 acres and destroyed 1,141 homes. Affected areas included Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Poway, Del Dios and Rancho Santa Fe.
The Witch Creek section of the Cal Fire report, prepared by Fire Captain Specialist Matthew Gilbert, says SDG&E documents show the 69-kilovolt line near Santa Ysabel experienced four interruptions that day: at 8:53 a.m., 11:22 a.m., 12:23 p.m. and 3:25 p.m. The line was de-energized at 3:27 p.m.
The cause of the fire was the 12:23 p.m. short, Gilbert said. “I believe hot particles were created when the lines faulted and came in contact with each other. These hot particles from the power line were created during this fault, . . . becoming wind borne and landing in the light grassy fuels.”
Steven Kane, a lawyer representing about 15 fire victims, said he has SDG&E documents going back two years that show there had never been a day when two faults were reported at the same spot on the same line.
“One would think if you've had two faults within a couple hours on the same line, with extreme weather conditions like the ones that existed, somebody might go out and check it,” Kane said.
The section dealing with the Guejito fire, which killed two people, concludes that it began in the San Pasqual Valley miles in front of the oncoming Witch Creek fire. The report says it started when thin-gauge “lashing wire” – wound around a Cox Communications fiber-optic cable and a steel support cable to hold them together – came in contact with a 12-kilovolt power line above. Scorched lashing wire was found dangling from Cox's cable and on the ground.
How that happened is unclear in the report's conclusions and could also be an issue in court. Cox officials maintained yesterday that the lashing wire unwound and dangled only after its cable and the power line struck each other in high winds, causing arcing that burned through the lashing wire.
In a field report written in January, Cal Fire investigator Gary Eidsmoe concluded that the lashing wire “unwound and made contact with a power line conductor, causing an arc.” He also said there was undamaged lashing wire on the ground, apparently from an earlier repair.
Yesterday, Cox Communications spokeswoman Ceanne Guerra said the company's cables carry no electrical current. She also said Cox San Diego meets or exceeds all guidelines set by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“In the time we've been here, we haven't had an incident like this,” Guerra said. Cox has operated in the county since 1962.
The city of San Diego also is suing SDG&E, alleging that the utility is liable for damage to a significant amount of the city's property as well as for costs incurred fighting the fires.
“While we filed the lawsuit to hold SDG&E accountable for the devastation, we also want them to take immediate action to prevent another firestorm, such as using new technology that would automatically turn off the power when electrical lines snap,” said City Attorney Michael Aguirre
J. Harry Jones: (760) 737-7579; firstname.lastname@example.org