Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Wildfire news: September 3

California: Report released about cause of October fires

The cause and origin investigations by CalFire of three of the major fires in southern California that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres last October concluded months ago that powerlines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires. But a report just released by the state's Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the state utilities commision confirms these findings and further accuses the power company, San Diego Gas and Electric, of refusing to fully cooperate with the investigation.

From the San Diego Union:
The 32-page analysis not only cites failures by SDG&E but also by Cox Communications, which maintained lashing wires blamed for sparking the Guejito fire. The report calls on the Public Utilities Commission to further investigate the extent of violations and recommends rule changes to avert future fire danger.

Investigators singled out SDG&E for delaying the final report, saying the power company failed to fully cooperate by not making witnesses and evidence available.

One utility official “instructed me to contact SDG&E's attorneys to determine when CPSD staff would be allowed to interview SDG&E personnel,” lead investigator Mahmoud Intably wrote.

Intably recommended the utilities commission make special note of SDG&E's lack of cooperation and issue a separate order clarifying that utilities must “provide immediate access to witnesses, sites or any other evidence requested” by regulators.

SDG&E issued a statement rejecting virtually every finding from safety inspectors.

“This report . . . is full of speculation and faulty conclusions, with sparse evidence – if any – to support its claims,” the statement read.

In a separate statement, Cox Communications also said the report's conclusions were not supported by evidence.

The company said the Cox Communications wire identified as the cause of the Guejito fire “was fully intact prior to the extreme Santa Ana winds, which caused SDG&E's lines and our lines to come into contact.”

Cal Fire said in July that a Cox lashing wire broke loose and connected with an SDG&E power line, sparking the Guejito fire. Lashing wires are thin strands used to bundle cables and other wires together.

Intably said he found other broken lashing wires during his investigation, indicating the problem might be more widespread. He suggested commissioners strengthen the rules regulating such wires.

The Witch Creek fire combined with the Guejito fire and killed two people, burned almost 200,000 acres and destroyed 1,141 homes. The Rice Canyon fire charred almost 9,500 acres and destroyed more than 200 houses.

Hundreds of plaintiffs are suing SDG&E to recover damages caused by the three fires.

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