By Rachel Williams
January 12, 2017 (Escondido) -- The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hosted public hearings on Monday covering SDG&E’s second attempt to charge ratepayers for the utility’s unrecovered losses from California’s 2007 wildfires.
While out of the country, Patricia Bennet’s house burned to the ground in the 2007 firestorm. As her possessions and heirlooms turned to ash, she was left with only a backpack full of belongings.
“When that circuit broke, and they were supposed to not charge it up again until they went out and physically checked. They did not do that. They sent the power through again, and it broke. They sent it through again. And the third time, the lines went down and the fire went out,” Bennet said.
Roughly 100 people gathered at the California Center for the Arts Conference Center to hear dozens of speakers, who were mostly against covering SDG&E’s remaining costs.
While hundreds of people lost their homes, SDG&E paid for $2.4 billion in damages to settle insurance claims. Roughly a billion of those costs were covered by liability insurance and third party settlements. Now there’s $379 million left that the company is looking to pass onto ratepayers.
Janice Shaffer lost her home and every solitary item, including her underwear in the fire. “The people who did not go through the fire are upset about paying an extra fee. They should not pay for what happened to us,” Shaffer said.
“They should keep the money in their pocket, and SDG&E should keep the money out of their pocket, and pay the bill to begin with. They took care of us, and now they’re spitting in our face.”
State investigators found three overarching power lines whipped by Santa Ana winds that were responsible for sparking the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon wildfires. Yet SDG&E claims the fires weren’t caused by faulty equipment or negligence, but winds measuring more than 100 miles an hour.
“It was the hurricane strength winds that day that were the common denominator in all of these fires,” Hanan Eisenman, SDG&E’s Communications Manager, said.
In the Witch Creek fire, the Santa Ana winds caused SDG&E’s lines to come together, according to Eisenman. In the Guejito fire, Cox Communications had a bundle of fiber optic cables that were latched together with a copper lashing wire, which unwound and blew up into the power lines. While in the Rice Canyon fire, a tree branch with a hidden structural defect broke, flying across the tree, and knocked SDG&E’s power lines down, Eisenman said.
For the average residential customer, the utility company is proposing they are responsible for approximately $20 a year for six years.
“The average customer would see an increase of approximately $1.70 a month over six years. Some will pay less; some will pay a little more. But the average customer, the average bill in our service territory would be paying $1.70 per month,” said Eisenman.
The firestorm of 2007 forced the largest evacuation in San Diego’s history. More than 500,000 people inhabited the evacuated areas, and two people died.
“We understand this was a very traumatic event for San Diego to go through. Our goal is to continue to make public safety our priority. We want to make sure our customers know that’s what we’re going to do. We’re working as hard as we can to enhance safety,” Eisenman adds.
Diane Conklin with the Mussey Grade Road Alliance disputed claims of extreme wind speeds during the fires made by SDG&E and noted that if SDG&E prevails in its request, “SDG&E shareholders will not bear any burden” for “pain, suffering, lost life and property” that the fires caused.
“Today in this room, people are remembering the horror of the fires, the damage to their families and communities,” she noted, adding, “The people in SDG&E’s service territory relied on SDG&E to keep us all safe and now SDG&E would have their pockets lined with money of those whom they failed to protect.” Recalling that the CPUC rejected a similar request from SDG&E in 2012, Conklin concluded, “We urge the Commission to again stand with the people.”
Eisenman is calling the 2007 firestorm a devastating natural disaster for the region. The company has replaced more than 10,000 wood power poles with durable steel. And six years ago, SDG&E brought in a helicopter to help deliver water for future fires. Now the company uses an electronic database to monitor more than 450,000 trees that grow near their power lines, which ensures they’re trimmed and inspected each year for safety.
Sharon Lynch was evacuated from her house for two weeks, and demands that her voice is heard. This isn’t the first time SDG&E has sought coverage from CPUC to pass its costs onto ratepayers for mishaps, such as San Onofre’s nuclear deal, she said.
“It is not only a financial issue that CPUC is deciding upon; it is a moral issue. Not only would a hefty charge burden each household this time, but in perpetuity when future wildfires occur,” Lynch said.
“We are not only talking about massive property losses, but also human lives lost. What kind of precedent would CPUC be setting if it allows this? CPUC would in essence be giving SDG&E a get out of jail card free.”