Cox, Utility Sparked Fires


Contact between a wire used to lash Cox Communications' plant to a power pole and a power conductor owned by the area utility started one of three destructive wildfires in San Diego County, Calif., last year, according to a report by the Consumer Safety and Protection Division of the California Public Utilities Commission.

The division investigated the cause of the Guejito, Witch Creek and Rice fires in that area and found that plant maintained by the area utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, which is owned by Sempra Energy, was responsible for the sparks that launched two of the fires. At the time of the fires, fierce Santa Ana winds whipped lines together, or, in the case of the Rice fire, a tree limb was broken by the winds, pulling down a wire and causing sparks.

The division's report was presented to the PUC on Sept. 2.

The report echoes the findings of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, completed Oct. 22, 2007. Though that report said “it was possible there were multiple origins to the fire,” it concluded that contact between the lashing wire and a 12-kilovolt SDG&E conductor started the Guejito fire. The conclusion was based on eye witness accounts of the start of the blaze and burned lashing recovered by investigators.

The Guejito blaze eventually merged with the Witch Creek fire, and cumulatively burned about 200,000 acres and 1,141 homes. Two people died in the fires.

Both Cox and SDG&E call the report faulty and unsupported by the facts.

In a statement, Cox said a report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection indicated that Cox's line was intact prior to the extreme winds. The winds caused SDG&E's equipment and “ours to come into contact,” according to the statement. The company added that fiber-optic lines do not carry electrical current that would start a fire.

“We're confident that after a full investigation, the commission will agree that evidence does not support the staff conclusions,” the Cox statement said.

The consumer-safety investigators believe that Cox may have violated state utility rules on overhead line construction, which mandates that plant placement be designed to provide safe, proper and adequate service. That plant must be inspected frequently, according to the state rules.

The report could draw Cox into the litigation over the fires. Hundreds of homeowners have joined a class-action suit against SDG&E, seeking compensation for all their losses, from homes and furnishings to pets. In addition, last month, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sent a letter to the utility, seeking $21 million in reimbursement for firefighting costs. Of that, $13.4 million is attributable to the Guejito/Witch Creek fire.

San Diego city attorney Michael Aguirre has already said he will add Cox to the lawsuit brought by the city against SDG&E to recover the costs of fighting the fires, according to statements to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The report to the PUC focused on the cause of the fires and ways to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. The PUC could use the recommendations as justification for changing rules on brush clearance, inspection mandates and other regulations for all companies with overhead line placements.