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SDG&E to pay the state $14.3 million after brush fires in 2007

Payment settles claims of shoddy maintenance but does not end the dispute over downed power lines' link to fires.

November 01, 2009|Tony Perry

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has agreed to pay the state $14.3 million to settle accusations that shoddy maintenance led to downed power lines, igniting the devastating 2007 brush fires in northern San Diego County that destroyed more than 1,500 homes.

But the tentative settlement, announced Friday by the utility company and the Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the California Public Utilities Commission, does not end the dispute over power line maintenance and its link to brush fires. Litigation by public agencies and private homeowners over the 2007 fires, which burned 200,000 acres, has targeted the issue of SDG&E's downed wires.

Last month the PUC denied a request by San Diego Gas & Electric that would have allowed the utility to turn off power to certain backcountry areas during times of high winds and low humidity to prevent arcing wires from starting fires.

The issue is certain to return to the commission.

Debra Reed, the utility company's president and chief executive, said the tentative settlement still needs commission approval and was made to avoid litigation with the PUC.

"As part of this settlement, we maintain that our system met all compliance and safety requirements but we fell short in meeting our obligation with respect to three follow-up reports," Reed said in a statement.

SDG&E critics called the settlement inadequate.

"This is chump change for SDG&E," said county Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob.

"This company has been grossly negligent for years in failing to maintain its infrastructure," she said.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network, a watchdog group, said the PUC staff should have demanded a finding of negligence by SDG&E and more money.

The settlement, he said, amounts to a "slap on the wrist."

Driven by unusually fierce Santa Ana winds, flames roared through rural areas in October 2007 and then into the San Diego neighborhoods of Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo.

The company has already agreed to pay insurance companies an estimated $685 million to reimburse them for payments to policyholders. But many of those policyholders are arguing that the payments from their insurance companies are insufficient.

Along with the SDG&E settlement, Cox Communications agreed to pay $2 million to settle a claim that one of its wires struck a power line and caused the Guejito fire.

Both payments will be made to the state's general fund.

A PUC investigation last year determined that the Witch and Rice Canyon fires were caused by sparks from downed wires and that the Guejito fire was caused when a Cox lashing wire hit a power line.

In all three cases, the PUC said poor maintenance was to blame.

In her statement, Reed promised to meet with "key stakeholders" on the issue of fire safety.

"This is not over," said Jacob.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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