USA — An electrical contractor and a tree-trimming company have agreed to pay $370 million in settlement agreements for their roles in two devastating 2007 wildfires in San Diego County.
The payments to San Diego Gas & Electric take a bite out wildfire costs that have exceeded insurance by $326 million at last estimate. State utility regulators are nearing a decision that could influence who ultimately gets billed for most of that — utility customers or investors in San Diego Gas & Electric.
The wildfires that broke out in October 2007 that burned more than 1,300 structures and killed two people were caused in large part by San Diego Gas & Electric equipment.
Contending with thousands of lawsuits by victims of the fires, SDG&E filed counter-suits against Kent, Ohio-based Davey Tree Expert Co. and Kansas, Mo.-based PAR Electric.
In State Superior Court, SDG&E asserted that Davey Tree, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services, was responsible for keeping power lines clear of vegetation in Rice Canyon near Fallbrook, where a fire allegedly was ignited by a fallen sycamore branch. PAR, meanwhile, replaced and modified a transmission line pole that other lawsuits have linked to the ignition of the Witch Creek Fire by two cables under heavy winds, according to the suit by SDG&E.
SDG&E told state utility regulators last week that it received a payment of about $190 million from Davey Tree and expects to receive an additional $180 million from PAR Electrical. The contractors did not respond to phone calls.
SDG&E denies it was ever at fault in the fires, but it apologized previously for obstructing investigators looking into the root causes. The subsidiary of San Diego-based holding company Sempra Energy paid $14.4 million to the states general fund to settle accusations that inadequate maintenance led to the blazes.
The Witch Creek fire would merge with the Guejito fire near Rancho Bernardo, resulting in deaths and the destruction of more than 1,000 homes and businesses. The Rice Canyon fire, which began north of state Route 78 near Rice Canyon Road, destroyed more than 200 homes in Fallbrook, most west of Interstate 15.
In a previous settlement, Cox Communications paid $444 million to SDG&E. Claims against SDG&E have outstripped that settlements to date worth $824 million and $1.1 billion of insurance coverage.
SDG&E managers say they are confident that most of the costs can be passed on to ratepayers, although that requires the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission.
The utility is seeking to recover uninsured costs from the 2007 wildfires and future fires through a specialized, streamlined proceeding that would limit its expenses to the first $10 million and 10 percent of uninsured expenses thereafter.
SDG&E says the new regulations are needed because the company can be held liable under California law for fires triggered by its equipment even when properly maintained. Critics say the proposal would undermine crucial financial incentives for investor owned utilities to ensure fire safety. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.