Power company agrees to pay $686 million for fires

San Diego Gas and Electric, SDG&E, whose power lines started three huge fires in southern California in 2007, has agreed to pay $686 million to insurance companies that paid claims to their customers for the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

Here are some excerpts from the Union-Tribune:

The money will be paid directly from SDG&E’s own liability insurance carriers to 65 homeowners insurance companies. About 20 more insurance companies are still in negotiations with SDG&E, the utility said, and the final settlement could reach $900 million.

“SDG&E does not acknowledge any fault or liability,” [SDG&E spokesperson Stephanie Donavan]  said. The fires were caused, she said, by the extreme weather conditions that existed in late October 2007. Donovan said the company thought the settlement was prudent, in part to spare the expense of a lengthy trial.

Combined, the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires killed two people and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Rancho Santa Fe and other communities.

Two state investigations found that arcing SDG&E power lines started each fire. The investigations also blamed, in part, Cox Communications equipment for starting the Guejito fire, which is believed to have been the blaze that burned into Rancho Bernardo before merging with the Witch Creek fire.

Donovan said that as part of the settlement, SDG&E has bought the claims that the insurance companies have against Cox and said the utility will aggressively seek compensation from Cox in a lawsuit that has already been brought.

So the fires were caused by “extreme weather conditions”? Does she mean lightning? No. Strong winds exposed weaknesses in the design and maintenance of the power lines.

Power company continues move toward fire prevention related power cut off

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has been lobbying the Public Utilities Commission for permission to cut off power to much of San Diego County during periods of strong winds.  They look at this as a less expensive alternative to making their powerlines more resistant to causing fires.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune by Onell R. Soto.

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After months of listening to telephone companies, water districts and disability-rights advocates criticize a plan to cut off power to parts of San Diego County during fire weather, state regulators are set to hear from the public.

The California Public Utilities Commission will consider opinions from residents this week on whether to approve a controversial proposal that San Diego Gas & Electric says will reduce the risk of fire when the weather is dry and windy.

“Everybody’s worried about it,” said Lisa Darroch, a Jamul mother who is worried about children being in school without power or communication on hot days. “What’s going to happen to our kids?”

Darroch plans to testify at a hearing in Alpine on Tuesday night. A second hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Valley Center

The brown areas are under consideration for power shut offs during strong winds. Map: San Diego Union-Tribune

The plan could affect nearly 150,000 people, including residents of Fallbrook, Escondido, Poway, Lakeside, Ramona and Alpine.

Power would be cut when the National Weather Service declares a red-flag warning; humidity is below 21 percent; moisture in dead plants is 10 percent or less and in living plants 75 percent or less; and sustained winds are above 34 mph or are gusting above 54 mph, with sustained winds above 29 mph.

The shut-offs, lasting up to 72 hours, are needed to prevent power lines from arcing in high winds and sparking massive wildfires of the sort that swept through the county in 2003 and 2007, Donovan said.

Opponents have raised a variety of concerns in recent filings with the PUC.

School officials said they would have to cancel classes if they don’t have electricity. Disability advocates said people who rely on power for medical equipment would have health problems.

Water districts warned they would be unable to pump water for firefighters, and recalled how Ramona residents were not allowed back home for a week after the 2007 fires because a crucial pumping station lacked power.

AT&T said cell phone and land-line service would be lost after a few hours – even outside the affected area – as backup batteries run out of juice. And cable companies said people would lose a link to the outside world, television and the Internet.

All of them said they would face increased costs as a result of SDG&E’s proposals, whether from spending millions of dollars for diesel-powered generators or, in the case of schools, losing state funds because students miss class.

“I have never seen quite as broad a coalition uniformly opposed to an SDG&E proposal,” said Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, the nonprofit Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

Shames said he’s against the plan because it might increase fire risk rather than reduce it. People are more likely to use candles, cook with fire and mess up while using a generator if they don’t have power, he said.

SDG&E encounters resistance to pre-emptive power shutoff plan

San Diego Gas and Electric is seeking approval from the Public Utilities Commission to turn off the power to large sections of San Diego County during periods of high fire danger.

From 10news:

A plan to shut off power to prevent power lines from sparking a wildfire has SDG&E at odds with some water districts around the county.  It may force the water districts to buy generators to keep the water running.

“The power demand of the station is the equivalent of a small city,” said Gary Arant.

The Bettsworth station is the Valley Center Municipal Water District’s main pumping station.  It takes around 5 megawatts to power the facility.

“I can’t have my water system without power for 12, 18, 24 , 36 hours,” said Arant, the district’s general manager.

He is referring to SDG&E’s emergency power shut off plan.  The plan calls for power lines to be shut off during high wind and dry conditions to avoid sparking a fire.

“Our concern is, with the SDG&E plan, we’re going to need about 8 to 12 of these units just maintain the critical service,” Arant said.

If the power is shut off, Arant says he would need auxiliary generators at a cost of $2.8 million to keep water running for customers and firefighters.  But, Arant said negotiations with SDG&E have come to a halt.

“To have them unilaterally pull the information and pull the offers off the table was very disappointing,” Arant said.

He said the utility company had been willing to work with them on offsetting the costs of the generators among other agreements, but now they will have to go before the Public Utility Commission for arbitration.

“We’re assuming they’re going to seek permission through the PUC and they’re going to try to not compensate us for the extra cost,” said Arant.

Power company sues their customers after burning down their houses

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), whose powerlines have been identified by CalFire investigators as causing the devastating Witch and Rice fires that burned large areas of eastern San Diego County in 2007, have said they intend to sue 14 of their customers whose homes burned in the fires. More than 1,100 homes and 197,000 acres burned, but SDG&E claims that the homeowners “failed to maintain property in respect to brush clearance”. The power company’s strategy is a countersuit to offset the suits of their customers who lost their homes.

Some of the homeowners are understandably stunned by this development.

This is like, for instance, if someone had a vicious dog who escaped through an improperly maintained fence, then attacked you and caused serious injury. Could the dog owner sue you for not carrying a weapon so you could have fought off the dog just before it attacked you?

As Wildfire Today reported on January 25, there are a gazillion lawsuits related to these fires. which so far are keeping over 150 lawyers gainfully employed and involve $1 billion.

Attorneyatlaw.com has more details.

HERE is a link to a map of the Witch fire.

UPDATE: January 30 @ 2:03 MT

As we have written in the past, we are strong advocates of the Prepare, Stay, and Defend program, for less flammable building materials, for property owners to maintain a fire safe environment around their structures, and for firefighters not being forced into unsafe situations fighting fire at unprepared homes. But if it turns out to be the case, as it appears now, that the fire was caused by negligence of the power company, it is unconscionable for them to sue their customers whose homes would not have burned down if the power company had not started the fire.

San Diego preemptive power outage gets mixed reviews

The plan by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to turn off electricity to large portions of the county during periods of strong winds and low fuel moisture is being applauded by some and criticized by others. The company’s power lines have been blamed for starting numerous large fires over the last 40 years and they are probably very concerned about their liability and how it will affect their profits.

They have several options:

  1. Reduce the chances that the power lines will start fires by ensuring that wooden poles, fuses and switches are in satisfactory condition, replacing some wooden poles with metal poles, putting some lines underground, improving their tree-trimming programs along the lines, and inspecting the lines more frequently.
  2. Implement the preemptive power outage program during Santa Ana wind events. This risks receiving heavy criticism from their customers who need power for medical equipment, traffic lights, telephones, garage door openers, and water systems. Convince tens of thousands of individuals, companies, and agencies to purchase and install emergency backup power systems, or have SDG&E pay for the systems. Option #2 may result in them getting sued.
  3. Do nothing, and continue to have their power lines start fires. They will continue to get sued if they choose this option.

As far as we know, this is an unprecedented plan, turning off power to large areas because the lines may start a fire during strong winds. They may be hoping that by scaring the public about losing their power, the state legislature will exempt the company from liability.

The scare-the-public tactic works for the Bush administration. It may work for SDG&E.