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Fanning the flames

Power lines have caused destructive fires in California. It's time to get serious about safety.

October 18, 2008

The Sesnon fire, which started Monday near Porter Ranch and destroyed 15 homes, was sparked when high winds downed a power line. It broke out almost exactly one year after a firestorm raged across Southern California, including three wind-driven fires in San Diego County that were sparked by, you guessed it, power lines.

Electric transmission lines have been causing fires in California for as long as there has been a power grid and wind; of the 20 worst fires in state history, electrical lines were blamed for four of them. Despite this, it wasn't until last year's siege of flames that regulators and lawmakers began seriously considering a coordinated response to the problem. A 2001 report by state fire officials and utilities called for greater information sharing and a database containing tree inventories and historic fire hazard zones, yet it was never developed.

Complicating matters is that there's no single agency in charge of regulating power lines or enforcing fire codes. The line that caused the Sesnon fire is owned by Southern California Gas Co. -- which isn't an electrical utility, so its lines aren't regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, and PUC rules that govern brush clearance and other precautions don't apply. It's unclear whether any government agency had oversight over the line.

Not that government regulations guarantee safety. A PUC report released last month on the 2007 San Diego County blazes found that San Diego Gas & Electric violated regulations for safety and maintenance on lines that caused the devastating Witch and Rice fires. It also concluded that the Guejito fire was caused by a Cox Communications wire that came into contact with an SDG&E conductor during strong Santa Ana winds; Cox, too, was deemed in violation of state rules. The findings have yet to be confirmed by the PUC board, which also must decide whether to fine those responsible.

Most troubling of all: The PUC's Consumer Protection and Safety Division found that there are other power poles in San Diego County with broken communication wires similar to the one that caused the Guejito fire. More strong Santa Ana winds are expected to gust through the area in coming weeks. Sleep well, San Diego.

One reason the problem has been ignored for so long is that the best solution -- burying the lines -- is so expensive as to be wildly impractical, costing an estimated $1 million a mile. But there are other responses. State lawmakers could start by demanding the creation of the fire database that was recommended in 2001. It's also outrageous that owners of private power lines like the one that sparked the Sesnon fire are being left unmonitored.

Not all wildfires can be prevented, but those caused by power lines can. California can't afford the destruction caused by careless utilities and clueless regulators.

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