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HomeFinance & InvestingBusinessSouthern California utility responsible for deadly 2022 fire, state officials say

Southern California utility responsible for deadly 2022 fire, state officials say

One of California’s largest utilities is responsible for a blaze that killed two people attempting to flee a fast-moving 2022 fire near Hemet, southeast of Los Angeles, according to a report from the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection obtained by The Washington Post.

Southern California Edison has previously denied any allegations of its involvement in the Fairview Fire, which ignited Sept. 5, 2022, and burned more than 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of structures while displacing tens of thousands of residents.

The report, which has not yet been made public, determined that because of a sag in one of SCE’s electrical lines near Fairview Avenue in Hemet, the wire came into contact with a communication line below it and caused a flurry of sparks, igniting flammable vegetation nearby.

The California Public Utilities Commission encourages utilities to temporarily shut down power to specific areas at risk of a wildfire, known as a public safety power shutoff. But despite the presence of strong winds and extreme heat conditions ripe for an inferno, the Cal Fire report said, SCE’s power lines remained energized that day.

“It was determined the SCE energized overhead electrical line contacted a Frontier communication line that was suspended underneath the electrical lines,” the report states. “This caused a shower of sparks, which caused the fire.”

David Eisenhauer, a spokesperson for SCE, said Wednesday that the company “cooperated with Cal Fire during its review of the fire, and we’re examining their latest report.”

“Our hearts are with the community and the people who suffered losses in the Fairview Fire,” he said.

Southern California Edison, a subsidiary of Edison International, provides electricity to roughly 15 million people across a territory of about 50,000 square miles.

It is seen as more proactive than California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, in taking steps to minimize fire ignitions from its equipment. Still, it faces billions of dollars in liabilities for past fires, including the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which destroyed more than 1,600 structures, killed three people and prompted the evacuation of nearly 300,000.

The state report about the Fairview Fire come as the victims’ families and the city of Hemet are engaged in a lawsuit against SCE, alleging it failed to properly manage its electrical infrastructure and maintain nearby landscaping to ensure wildfire mitigation, putting residents at an increased risk.

“From the beginning of this case, we alleged that the Fairview Fire was caused by an electrical arcing event due to line-slap involving Edison’s powerlines. We’re glad that CAL FIRE has confirmed this as the official cause,” said Alexander Robertson IV, an attorney from Robertson & Associates representing Fairview Fire victims.

In recent years across much of the West, fires in what is known as the wildland-urban interface have become more and more common, in part because of climate change and people moving into remote areas, but also because of utility negligence. Like the 2022 Fairview Fire, August’s deadly fire in Lahaina, Hawaii, and the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado were sparked by power lines and proved to be catastrophic when they raced through overgrown grasses into heavily populated neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, California regulators on Thursday are expected to vote on whether to approve a proposal from PG&E that would raise customer costs by anywhere from 10 to 25 percent over four years to help pay for wildfire safety and prevention. PG&E was found liable for the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise and killed at least 85 people, as well as the 2021 Dixie Fire, which scorched nearly 1 million acres.

For its part, SCE is proposing a consumer energy bill increase of about $17 in 2025, and about $5 each year thereafter through 2028. Since 2018, the utility says, it has taken steps to reduce the risk of wildfires associated with its equipment by about 80 percent, including by completing more inspections each year, installing additional weather stations to monitor fire conditions, and increasing efforts to trim or remove trees.

The civil case against SCE over the Fairview Fire is set to go to trial in September.

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Amit Ghosh
Amit Ghosh


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