USA — In a matter that has been before California’s Public Utilities Commission for the last two years, CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division (CPSD) has come out in favor of CPSD investigators gathering their own data on California wildfire causes relating to public power utilities.
In 2008, CPUC initiated its own action as Rulemaking 08-11-005 (R0811005) to investigate public utility safety practices following the 2007 wildfire season. During Fall 2007, the County of San Diego experienced its largest mass evacuation of residents in regional history as the Witch Creek, Rice, and other wildfires raged across the county. San Diego Gas and Electricity Company testimony before CPSD in 2009 revealed numerous causes of those wildfires relating to overhead utility equipment failures and neglected tree trimming despite warnings of pre-inspection contractors who were feeding information into SDG&E’s automated Vegetation Management Program.
Currently, PG&E, SDG&E and components of Southern California Edison Company are requesting that CPUC give them authority to bill customers for uninsured wildfire legal expenses and other related uninsured wildfire damages without testing to see if those legal expenses and other costs were incurred due to utility negligence or violations of CPUC regulations and orders. The Wildfire Expense Balancing Account (WEBA) A0908020 proposal is now opposed by numerous parties, including the City of San Diego and County of San Diego as civil suit plaintiffs against SDG&E for damages stemming from the 2007 wildfire season. Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre stated in Ruth Henrick’s protest to the WEBA proposal, In October 2007, San Diego County was hit by two massive conflagrations, the Witch Fire and Rice Fire. During the Witch Fire, two civilian deaths occurred and about 48 firefighters were injured. Approximately 1,141 homes, 509 buildings and 239 vehicles were destroyed. Another 7 homes and 25 outbuildings were damaged. The Rice Fire burned about 9.472 acres, damaging about 206 homes, 2 commercial properties and 40 outbuildings.
In September 2010, PG&E submitted a brief in the R0811005 proceeding advising CPUC that CPSD’s collection of wildfire cause data was redundant because of an existing data base of information collected by California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as submitted to the California All-Incident Reporting System. CAL FIRE officials insist that the data base probably will not satisfy CPUC’s needs as a basis for making objective policy decisions because CAL FIRE’s access to the CAIRS data base does not directly address specific utility-caused incidents in detail. The utilities through PG&E’s reply brief apparently have a great interest in restricting the R0811005 hearing and evidence record to non-specific wildfire causes without much detail on whether the causes were related to utility negligence or regulatory indifference.
CPSD’s sur-reply brief was joined by Diane Conklin’s Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona to insist that CPSD be allowed to gather its own data on wildfire causes. The CPSD hearings into the 2007 San Diego County wildfires were halted by a settlement earlier this year with an agreement for an SDG&E shareholder payment of a $14.8 million wildfire settlement with CPUC. That April 2010 agreement came only days after Aguirre announced his intervention in CPUC wildfire insurance matters involving SDG&E. With those wildfire cause hearings now halted, it appears that CPSD must be allowed to collect its own data to provide CPUC commissioners with information that comes without corporate filtering from the investor owned power utilities.