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County studies power line regulations

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky seeks to close loophole on lines like the one blamed for the Sesnon fire.

October 18, 2008|Andrew Blankstein and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

Some county officials said Friday they want to close a loophole that exempted the power line that caused the Sesnon fire from inspection or brush clearance rules.

The move comes a day after The Times reported that the electricity distribution line that sparked the huge blaze was not covered under the state's strict inspection and brush clearance rules because it was not owned by an electric utility and was on private land.

"The situation exposed a loophole in the law, a loophole that we should close," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "Power lines should be treated at least as stringently as homes, which are not sources of ignition. Homes don't fall over and start fires."

Yaroslavsky said one thing the county should consider is whether it needs its own rules to cover power lines not regulated by the state.

Heavy winds blew down the distribution line in a remote unincorporated area of Los Angeles County north of Porter Ranch, fire officials said, sparking a blaze that destroyed 15 homes and damaged six more, destroyed 47 outbuildings and may have contributed to the death of a motorist driving on the 118 Freeway.

The power line that caused the Sesnon fire is owned by Southern California Gas Co. A spokeswoman said the utility does have power distribution lines around the hilly region to serve offices and equipment for a natural gas storage facility in the area but declined to discuss details about the line in question.

California Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman Susan Carothers said agency staffers met with Southern California Gas officials at the site of the incident and found that a long section of wire running across a canyon had failed and fallen on the ground.

Southern California Gas contracts with Petrelli Electric to maintain the system, she said.

Utilities commission officials stressed that the agency's rules, which are intended to reduce the risk of brush fires sparked by downed power lines, don't apply to the gas company's line because it is not an electric utility.

Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Mike Antonovich plan to introduce their own motion at Tuesday's board meeting calling for an investigation into the role power lines played in the Sesnon fire and how to avert another incident.

Southern California Gas spokeswoman Jennifer Briscoe said she had not seen the supervisors' proposal but said any decision to regulate private power lines was up to the state.

San Diego is also grappling with the dangers posed by electrical wires during heavy winds, which were blamed for massive blazes there last year.

The PUC announced this week that it will review a controversial plan by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to shut off power to some rural areas during high wind conditions as a fire prevention strategy.

The plan came after investigations by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the PUC blamed downed power lines for three of the massive fires that struck northern San Diego County in late 2007. SDG&E faces more than three dozen lawsuits from property owners and the city of San Diego.

The shut-off plan provoked an outcry from rural residents and elected officials as well as a lawsuit by two rural water districts who say that shutting off power would prevent them from pumping water to fight fires. Faced with opposition, SDG&E announced this week that it will hold the strategy in abeyance until further study.

The Sesnon fire was one of two in the San Fernando Valley sparked this week by Santa Ana winds. On Friday, officials said the apparent cause of the 4,824-acre Marek fire in the Lake View Terrace area was "vehicle-related."

No further information was available, said Sherry Rollman, a spokeswoman for Angeles National Forest.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego and Amanda Covarrubias in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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