California utility pays $2.8 million to settle federal negligence claim in forest fire

California utility pays $2.8 million to settle federal negligence claim in forest fire

13 February 2010

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USA — Southern California Edison has paid $2.8 million to settle federal claims that its negligence caused the 2002 Birch Fire in the Inyo National Forest in Mono County, Calif., U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner has announced.

He said the fire started July 1, 2002, in the national forest about 15 miles north of Bishop, Calif., when sparks from broken hardware at a power pole ignited tree branches that had grown into a 12,000-volt Edison distribution line.

A special use permit requires Edison to take anti-fire precautions in the right of way for transmission lines, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Robert Wright. In addition, he said, California law requires the electric utility giant to maintain a four-foot clearance between power lines and vegetation.

The government alleged in a civil lawsuit that Edison did not trim the branches or repair or replace the broken hardware, the combination of which resulted in the fire, which burned 2,600 acres of national forest land.

A portion of the settlement money will be used to restore the scorched landscape, said U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore.

Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said Friday in an e-mail: “Even though there was a disagreement between Edison and the Forest Service regarding the fire, we determined it was best to settle the dispute rather than prolong the litigation process. Edison maintains its infrastructure … to the highest industry standards.”

Alexander would not elaborate “on the record” as to the nature of the disagreement. He said in a voice mail message, “The dispute is settled and we don’t want to say things that make it sound like we are still processing the differences.”

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