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California Wildfire Investigations Spark New Utility Regulations


In the years preceding 1995, the entire country averaged only one "mega-fire" per year. The U.S. Fire Service that reported the information applies the term to fires that consume over 100,000 acres. California wildfires alone have met that that annual average over the past ten years. As a whole, the United States is now averaging ten times the pre-1995 amount; a statistic predicted by researchers to double by the middle of this century.

Lightning was once the most common cause of wildfires but with more people on the landscape today, most of the fires are started by humans or their equipment. The search for causes of the most recent California wildfires has had investigators to looking at downed high-voltage power lines in at least two of the fires. A witness in Little Tujunga Canyon reported seeing a snapped line whipping on a transmission tower and sending sparks onto the dry brush below.

That witness immediately fled her home driving through what was the beginning of the Creek fire, which burned more than 60 homes above Sylmar. It was one of five fires to devastate the Southern California landscape last week, destroying over 1000 structures and forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate.

The Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has burned nearly 250,000 acres and become the fourth-largest fire ever recorded in California. A firefighter lost his life in that blaze. As horrific that wildfire was, the future for more fires of even greater magnitude is terrifying.

The Utilities and the Year Round Threat of Fires

At the New York Times ClimateTech Conference in San Francisco late last month, Governor Jerry Brown called the constant threat of wildfires "the new normal."

California is burning up," Brown said. "The fire season is not a couple of months in the summer - It's virtually year-round."

Brown added that adapting to this riskier future is essential too - especially for California's electric utilities, which may bear responsibility for fueling the flames.

In a recent announcement, Southern California Edison (SCE) said that California fire officials notified the utility that its equipment was under investigation for a possible cause of some of the fires. Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) is also under investigation by Cal Fire for at least one of the fires that destroyed land and homes in Wine Country and is already the target of a multitude of lawsuits.

On November 30, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) denied San Diego Gas and Electric's request to recover costs from the 2007 Southern California wildfires, citing that SDG&E "did not responsibly operate its facilities linked to the wildfires, which therefore prohibits the utility from recovering those costs in rates."

SDG&E was making an attempt to recover $379 million in costs and legal fees, a portion of $2.4 billion incurred to resolve third party damage claims from the Witch, Guejito and Rice wildfires. SDG&E was found guilty of imprudent management in all three cases.

PG&E CEO Geisha Williams said that the San Diego case "presents a major challenge to utilities in an era of climate change."

"It's an issue that involves better forest management, more resources and training for the first responder community and possible changes to building codes and land use planning," Williams said at ClimateTech. "Utilities also need to come up with new ways to prevent fires and ensure grid resilience."

"As a utility I'm thinking, "What do I do to make a difference?" Williams said. "Do I need to go with steel poles instead of wood poles?" Does it make sense to underground certain sections? Do we have to expand our right-of-way for clearing?"

On Thursday, Dec. 14 the CPUC adopted new fire safety regulations designed to reduce the number of wildfires as well as mitigate their impact. The utilities are required to increase clearances between vegetation and power lines, conduct annual patrol inspections of overhead facilities, prepare fire prevention and mitigation plans in high risk zones. A High-Risk-Fire Threat District map is also established to identify areas where these actions are needed most.

As rents and home prices increase with the population, developments are mushrooming in fire-prone forests, canyons, hills and mountains. To bring power to the countless wild-urban interface locations, high voltage cables are strung over the dry landscape like towering clotheslines without sufficient strain relief against the relentless Santa Ana winds.

The warming and drying climate has augmented the nations fire season by 78 days. Firefighters in California are already talking about their "year-round fire season." They know the possibility of more large blazes in the coming months is a distinct reality.


Help for Victims of the California Wildfires

If you lost your home, business or suffered property damage in any of the California wildfires it is important to retain legal counsel to plot a course of action to aid in recovering your losses. The utility company may be responsible for your loss and you will need the best attorney to recover your damages. Do not depend on your insurance company. They will be overwhelmed with claims and will be attempting to minimize payouts. Your lawyer will protect you from their chicanery.

Vititoe Law Group is currently seeking victims of the recent wildfires to explore legal possibilities. If you suffered loss of your home, business, property or farmland, reach out to Vititoe Law Group's wildfire attorneys for a free evaluation of your case. Call 818-851-1886 or contact us online and speak with an attorney today.

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