USA — In October 2007, brutal gusts from the Santa Ana winds blew a cable line into a power line, creating the sparks that ignited the Guejito Fire outside San Diego.
In January 2009, brutal gusts from the Chinook winds blew a cable line into a power line, creating the sparks that ignited the Olde Stage Fire outside Boulder.
The blazes that raged across southern California in 2007 ultimately consumed more than 1,500 homes and charred almost 8 square miles. The Olde Stage Fire was far less destructive, burning about 2,500 acres, destroying two barns and damaging several homes. (A separate fire along Neva Road, also sparked by power lines, destroyed one home.)
But whether it’s two barns or 1,000 homes, the question remains: Is the power company, the cable company, the utility-pole owner — or is no one — liable for the damages?
A year after the fires outside San Diego were snuffed out, it’s clear who California blames.
A report released in September by the state’s Public Utility Commission found that Cox Communications failed to inspect and maintain its cable line. The report also said the utility company, San Diego Gas and Electric, was responsible for the Witch and Rice fires, which burned at the same time and were also started by sparks, the first when two overhead conductors came in contact and the other when a sycamore limb fell onto power lines.
In the last couple of months, insurance companies that paid out hundreds of millions of dollars, people whose homes were destroyed, farmers who lost their crops and firefighters who fought the blazes have joined together in a massive lawsuit against the utility and the cable company.
“We’re talking about over a billion dollars in damages,” said Ken Roye, a lawyer involved in the suit. “In that litigation, there are over 150 lawyers. … We think we can resolve the case within three years, but at some point, (the defendants) may throw in the towel, and we can start negotiating.”
Roye, who organizes an annual wildland fire litigation conference, sounds pretty confident when he talks about wringing money from utilities. He took on his first wildfire lawsuit in 1988 — and he’s never lost a case. Though most of the time, he said, the utilities give in before the case goes to court.
That’s what happened when Boulder County residents sued Xcel Energy after the Overland Fire destroyed about 20 homes outside Jamestown in 2003. The fire started when a 50-foot-tall ponderosa pine broke in high winds and downed a power line.
The lawsuit alleged that Xcel failed to remove “hazard trees” near the power lines and did not properly inspect and maintain the line. More than 1½ years after the lawsuit was filed — and just before a six-week trial was scheduled to begin — Xcel settled with 49 clients, paying them an undisclosed amount of money.
The sheriff’s office does not yet know the cost of fighting the Olde Stage Fire and the Neva Road fire, which started when a utility pole owned by Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association snapped in a strong gust of wind and fell on a fence, causing the sparks that ultimately destroyed a nearby house.
And, according to Comdr. Phil West, the office is unlikely to try and recover the money spent to fight a fire that was started by extremely strong winds — an “act of God.”
But 80 mph winds like the ones that fanned the flames in early January aren’t rare in Boulder, and regulations outlined by the National Electrical Safety Code provide complex formulas for figuring out how slack or tight — and what the spacing should be — between lines on a utility pole depending on a range of expected wind and ice conditions.
“The Comcast line hung below the Xcel power line,” West said. “Somehow, slack was developed. … There wasn’t the same degree of tension on it.”
Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said she couldn’t comment on the slack because the investigation into what happened is ongoing, and Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz told the Camera last week, “Given the fact that you can’t control what blows into the lines, there’s not a tremendous amount you can do to protect against that.”
In the case of the Neva Road Fire, Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association said it is not required to inspect its utility poles by any state law. Still, the company voluntarily hired an outside consulting firm about a decade ago to begin inspecting its aging infrastructure, according to spokesman Ric Soulen, who was unsure Friday if the poles in Boulder County had been looked at.
“We’re a nonprofit cooperative,” he said. “It’s difficult to undertake something like that in one shot.”
Six other utility poles owned by Poudre Valley came down in the same windstorm, Soulen said, but none of the others lit fires. Soulen, who lives in the fire-prone foothills, said it’s important for people who own property in that area to keep brush and other flammable materials away from power lines and their houses.
“I live in a ponderosa pine forest, and I work very diligently to keep brush cleared,” he said. “But in a wind like that — who can say?”