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Lawsuit alleges the DWP caused last year's Powerhouse fire

April 23, 2014|By David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
  • A helicopter drops fire retardant on a ridge near Lake Hughes where the Powerhouse Fire burned last summer. Plaintiffs alleging they suffered damages in the fire are suing the L.A. County DWP.
A helicopter drops fire retardant on a ridge near Lake Hughes where the Powerhouse… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Scores of people who suffered damage when the Powerhouse fire scorched stretches of northern Los Angeles County are suing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, alleging the utility started the massive blaze and failed to properly maintain power lines and equipment.

The fire destroyed dozens of homes and burned more than 30,000 acres over the course of several days last year. U.S. Forest Service officials have estimated the cost of battling the blaze at more than $16 million.

The fire began at or near a DWP hydroelectric power plant near Santa Clarita, according to the lawsuit. Plaintiffs in the case said they experienced personal injury, property damage, loss of cherished possessions, evacuation expenses and various forms of emotional distress, among other claims.

“I’d be shocked if the dollar damages were less than $10 million and I think it’s going to be significantly more than that,” said Gerald Singleton, one of the lawyers representing more than 100 plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit, filed last month, alleges the DWP negligently failed to frequently inspect its electrical transmission lines and wires, design lines in a way that would avoid sparking fires and install equipment to stop lines from improperly sagging, among other failings. The utility took “a known, calculated risk that private property would be damaged and destroyed by fire,” the lawsuit states.

"We believe the DWP lines were the cause of the fire, and that's pretty much done through a process of elimination," Singleton said. "Through the investigation, we’ve ruled out any other cause."

A DWP representative did not immediately respond to the lawsuit. U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Heil said his agency is still finalizing its report on the cause of the fire. He had no comment on the lawsuit's assertions.

[Updated 9 a.m. PDT April 24: In a statement, the DWP said it has been conducting its own investigation and “does not believe that equipment age was a factor” in the fire’s cause.

A DWP employee discovered the fire and promptly reported it, according to the utility. “The area has not experienced a major fire since the 1920s, which resulted in a significant fuel for the fire after the weekend winds caused the fire to spread rapidly,” the agency said.]

Singleton previously represented more than 1,600 people suing San Diego Gas & Electric over three fires in San Diego County. The attorney said most of those cases had been settled; four are headed for trial next year.

Among the plaintiffs in the Powerhouse case are the Painted Turtle, a nonprofit camp for children with chronic illnesses such as hemophilia and kidney disease. The fire destroyed 90 acres of vegetation at the camp and prevented it from operating in the 2013 season, according to Singleton's firm. The destruction of vegetation also caused property owners to suffer "severe erosion damage" during this year's rainy season, the lawyers said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzahniser

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesemily

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