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Sparks Still Flying Over Cause of Santa Barbara Wharf Fire

Landmarks: City inquiry implicates Edison line in the $10-million blaze. 'Impossible,' the company says, as legal fight looms.


SANTA BARBARA — Rebuilding this city's No. 1 tourist attraction is proving easier than placing blame for the massive November fire that destroyed a quarter of Stearns Wharf.

The Santa Barbara Fire Department has decided that the blaze was "accidental and electrical in nature." But the debate over who is responsible continues to rage because arson investigators say the suspected cause, a 16,000-volt Southern California Edison line, probably was destroyed in the fire.

Edison officials hotly contest allegations that the fire started in the company's electrical line. And city officials predict a lengthy legal battle now that a five-month investigation has ended.

"We looked at allegations of arson, illegal wiring, the whole gamut," said Santa Barbara Fire Chief Warner McGrew. "It is a true story that we even looked at a report of a meteorite hitting the pier.

"What can I say? This is Santa Barbara. There is a cosmic aspect to everything."

While the dispute seemingly has no end, pier reconstruction has a strict timeline.

The wharf's sprawling wood decking is expected to be restored by September, said John Bridley, director of the city's waterfront department. Work will then begin on rebuilding two restaurants and a bait shop that were destroyed.

In recent weeks, visitors to the wharf, which spans four acres, have been greeted by the sound of pile drivers hammering supports into the ground.

"People are just so happy to see the rebuilding that they are willing to put up with the noise," Bridley said. He said one-third of the pilings have been placed, and that watching the progress has become one of the pier's attractions.

The city gets 10% of proceeds from pier businesses, and Bridley said revenues are higher than last year at the remaining 14 businesses. About 3 million visitors a year come to Stearns Wharf.

"Curiosity brought out the locals," said Nicole Mark, manager of the Old Wharf Trading Co. "We don't usually get the locals out here. Really, the weather tends to hurt us more than the pier fire did."

The Nov. 18 blaze caused $10 million in damage to the wharf and the three businesses that were destroyed. The city has spent $2.5 million more on demolition and investigating what happened.

The Fire Department said the blaze appeared to start in the main electrical line under Moby Dick restaurant, which was destroyed.

The 16,000-volt line in question ran underneath the decking inside a strong plastic conduit. Fire officials said wharf movement and exposure to waves can cause damage to the plastic, leaving the electrical line exposed.

Edison is responsible for maintaining the electrical line, but the disagreement centers on who is responsible for maintaining the plastic conduit.

"We can't say that it was 100% Edison's fault," McGrew said. "The issue of responsibility is going to be in litigation."

Ray Seider, insurance broker for Moby Dick restaurant, offered similar sentiments.

"My gut feeling is the insurance companies will be filing suit against both the city and Edison," Seider said. "The legal battle is going to be extensive."

Edison officials dispute city allegations of an electrical cause of the fire.

"It's virtually impossible for it to start the way they suggested," said Hal Conklin, director of public affairs for Edison's northern region. "You would have a massive explosion."

Conklin, a former mayor of Santa Barbara, said the line would have automatically shut off at the first sign of a problem. But he said that power remained on--past the burning restaurant to the end of the pier--for the first 20 minutes of the fire, suggesting that the source of the blaze was elsewhere.

Edison's fall-back position, Conklin said, is that even if the line had a problem the city was responsible because it had long since agreed to maintain the plastic conduit.

Santa Barbara City Atty. Daniel Wallace sees it differently. "That's a mischaracterization of the situation," he said. "It's [Edison's] responsibility to maintain the integrity of a 16,000-volt line. It is not the city's fault." Edison has fought legal battles over other fires. In recent months, a Santa Barbara County jury found that the company was not responsible for a massive wildfire near Fillmore. Forestry officials there had claimed that Edison failed to keep brush clear underneath power lines.

The company remains embroiled in a lawsuit over a 1996 Calabasas brush fire that destroyed more than 13,000 acres. State forestry officials allege that Edison was to blame for failing to trim trees close to power lines.

In the wake of the Stearns Wharf fire, Edison and city officials are working together to make the restored electrical line that runs underneath the wharf more flexible in hopes of avoiding future problems.

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