San Diego power company agrees to pay $14.8 million for wildfires

San Diego Gas and Electric Company has agreed to pay the state of California $14.8 million over three fires in 2007 that were caused by their power lines. Investigators determined that shoddy maintenance of the lines led to arcing, which started the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires that burned through the communities of Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, and Rancho Santa Fe in October and November of 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved the settlement on Thursday, as well as a $2 million settlement with Cox Communications. Investigators say one of Cox’s cables blew into a power line, starting the Guejito fire.  Both companies say they are not at fault for the fires, but just wanted to get the charges out of the way.

The Commission accused SDG&E of obstructing their investigation of the cause of the fires. According to the San Diego Union, in the settlement the company admitted that it didn’t give investigators the information they asked for and didn’t let its workers talk to the investigators, as required by law.

San Diego power company pays $14M to state for starting huge fires in 2007

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has agreed to a settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission to pay $14.3 million for starting the Witch, Rice, and Guejito fires in eastern San Diego County in 2007. Cox Communications agreed to pay $2 million without admitting they started the Guejito fire.

Here is an excerpt from a report in the San Diego Union Tribune.


San Diego Gas & Electric and Cox Communications agreed Friday to pay $17 million to settle claims by state investigators that their shoddy maintenance led to three huge North County wildfires two years ago. SDG&E also apologized for obstructing investigators looking into the cause of the fires.

The companies did not admit fault for setting the fires, but said they would take steps to better maintain their lines and equipment. The settlement comes more than a year after investigators with the Public Utilities Commission concluded that power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

The fires burned more than 1,300 homes, killed two people and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands.

SDG&E agreed to pay $14.3 million to the state’s general fund and reimburse the PUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division up to $400,000 for a computer system designed to help investigate utility safety hazard incidents. The money will come out of SDG&Es profits, not from ratepayers.

As for the obstruction allegation, the company said it knows it has an “obligation and duty to respond promptly” when investigators need information and access to its workers. “SDG&E admits that its efforts fell short of meeting this obligation and duty in connection with the CPSD’s investigations into the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires and apologizes for permitting this to happen. SDG&E will conduct additional training in this area,” the company said in the settlement.

It also said it failed to file timely reports on the fires. In a statement, SDG&E President Debra Reed said the company wants to move on.

“We are settling this matter to put the issue behind us and avoid the costs and risks of further litigation,” she said.  “As part of this settlement, we maintain that our system met all compliance and safety requirements, but we fell short of meeting our obligations with respect to three follow-up reports,” she said. She did not mention the apology.

Cox, meanwhile, agreed to pay $2 million to the general fund, without admitting that it caused the Guejito fire. Investigators said a Cox lashing wire came loose in high winds and caused arcing when it came in contact with an SDG&E power line.

“We believe that our line was properly maintained and intact prior to the Santa Ana winds in 2007, and did not cause the Guejito fire,” Cox said in a statement. “The CPUC has a long history of handling disputes through agreements, and we entered into this agreement in an effort to move forward and stay focused on the business of serving our customers and our community.”

The settlement does not affect the ongoing litigation in San Diego Superior Court in which hundreds of fire victims as well as governmental agencies are seeking damages from SDG&E. Earlier this year, SDG&E settled many claims, paying out more than $740 million to dozens of insurance companies seeking partial reimbursement for money they had already paid to clients.

However individual fire victims have yet to be compensated for losses beyond whatever insurance they may have had, and numerous governmental agencies such as CalFire and the city and county of San Diego are still trying to recover millions of dollars in fire fighting costs and other damages.

SDG&E has asked the PUC for permission to raise rates to pay for damages beyond what its insurance covers, and for higher insurance costs because of the fires. Lawyers involved in the case say it could still be years before the litigation ends.

SDG&E has not admitted responsibility for the fires. At some point a judge will have to schedule a trial or trials to determine whether SDG&E is liable.

SDG&E leases Erickson Air-Crane helicopter

On September 9 Wildfire Today reported on San Diego Gas and Electric’s plans to lease a large helicopter that would be available to fight wildfires. They now have in place an Erickson Air-Crane S-64E Type 1 helicopter that can be ordered through the San Diego Fire Department. The first two hours will be free, paid by SDG&E, with any additional time costing $7,500 an hour. When the helicopter is not fighting fires, it will be used to build a new power line.Photo: Erickson Air-Crane

The helicopter is being leased through and operated by Erickson Air-Crane and will be stationed at Brown Field in Otay Mesa.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an article that explores the relationship between SDG&E and the San Diego City Council, and how the Council supported the power company’s plan to shut off the electricity to large sections of the county during periods of high fire danger. 

Television special about Air-Cranes

How did we miss this? From Erickson Air-Crane’s web site:

The first ever one-hour documentary devoted exclusively to Erickson Air-Crane and our S-64 has premiered worldwide on the National Geographic Channel in the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, Iceland, Lithuania, and most recently in the United States on Thursday, September 17th and 24th under the title: “Aircrane: Extreme Helicopter” The program is currently scheduled to repeat through the rest of the year. The nationwide premiere of program on National Geographic Canada is scheduled for October 16th at 9 p.m. P.S.T. 

I was unable to find any future broadcast times for the program on the NGC’s web site. If anyone has information about this, let us know.


SDG&E to hire private firefighters and a helicopter

The power company that is seeking approval to turn off the electricity to large sections of the local back country during periods of high fire danger, San Diego Gas and Electric, will be hiring private engine crews and renting and later purchasing a helicopter that can suppress fires that their work crews may inadvertently start.

Here is an excerpt from the North County Times. The entire article is HERE.

A company with a local presence is poised to play a potentially pivotal role in preventing San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s power lines from sparking wildfires this fall.

Utility officials said Tuesday that they have hired Fire Stop, a Walnut Grove company that is essentially a contract fire department, to follow electric line crews around in fire-prone areas of the backcountry September through November so they can pounce if flames ignite in nearby brush. Ramona is the headquarters of the company’s Southern California operations.

SDG&E also has rented a helicopter capable of dumping 1,000 gallons of water for the same three months, said Mike Niggli, chief operating officer, at a news conference designed to spotlight the utility’s fire prevention efforts in advance of a widely anticipated decision Thursday.

Stung by state investigations that blamed SDG&E for three of the massive October 2007 fires and having paid out $740 million in lawsuit settlements in connection with those blazes, the company has petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to turn off electricity in dry, windy weather. SDG&E says such fire prevention outages would black out, on average, about 24,000 people for 13 hours, but could affect as many as 110,000 people.

SDG&E maintains the outages are a necessary inconvenience that would prevent falling trees and slapping wires from triggering infernos. Such blackouts could affect De Luz, Fallbrook, Pala, Pauma Valley, Valley Center, Ramona and parts of Poway and Escondido.

But the proposal is widely opposed by water districts, schools, consumer groups and others who say the loss of power would compound the danger backcountry residents would face if a fire broke out for some other reason. Opponents say seriously disabled people would be cut off from life-sustaining medical equipment, many residents of the blacked-out area would miss warnings to evacuate and evacuations would become chaotic with inoperable traffic signals.

SDG&E also is seeking immunity from liability if something goes wrong, as a result of the power being out.

The commission is slated to choose between two recommendations Thursday: Reject the plan, or authorize it as a one-season experiment with conditions. Neither recommendation calls for granting immunity.


SDG&E to replace some wooden power poles

Photo: ginsnob/Flicker

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is hoping to receive approval of their plan to turn off the electricity to large sections of San Diego County during periods of high fire danger. Some have complained that this is primarily a strategy that is less expensive than to harden their infrastructure against strong winds.

But they are taking a small step in the right direction, in that they are replacing some of their wooden power poles with steel poles. They already have about 700 steel poles and expect to replace 1,200 wooden poles in 2009. Ultimately they have plans to replace some poles in the communities of Alpine, Valley Center, Escondido, El Cajon, and Bonita.

That is the good news. The rest of the story is that they have 75,000 wooden poles in areas defined as “high” and “very high” fire risk by CalFire.  At the current rate of replacement, all of those wooden poles would be replaced by 2071.

California state regulators halt power company’s power shutoff plan

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a temporary order blocking the plan by San Diego Gas and Electric to preemptively shut off the electricity for up to 150,000 people at a time when the fire danger meets their predetermined criteria. SDG&E had expected to implement the plan on September 1, but the commission put a halt to it at least until they can meet on September 10.

Photo: ginsnob / Flickr

The power company has said shutting off the electricity during dry and windy conditions would prevent fires that could be started by their power lines. Many groups are opposed to the plan, including schools, water districts, and disabled people who rely on life-sustaining equipment. One study found that there are 900 people in the affected area with chronic medical problems. Of those, 590 rely on electrical equipment for thier well being.

SDG&E’s outage plan