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SDG&E Cut Spending On Powerlines Before 2007 Wildfires, Say Lawyers For Homeowners

Aired 3/8/12 on KPBS News.

Lawyers suing SDG&E warn that if regulators allow the company to bill customers for the costs of those fires, incentives to maintain lines will disappear.

San Diego Gas & Electric scaled back spending on power-line maintenance in the years before the 2007 wildfires, according to papers filed with regulators.

The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona in 2007, burned hundreds of s...
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Above: The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona in 2007, burned hundreds of structures and forced thousands of evacuations.

State investigators found that SDG&E lines started the 2007 fires that killed two people and destroyed 1,300 homes.

SDG&E blamed the fires on a 10-year drought and Santa Ana Winds. An expert hired by people whose homes were destroyed looked at SDGE’s budgeting for maintenance and inspections.

The expert, Leonardo Giacchino, says most utilities would increase their budget for maintenance to lessen the danger to power lines. But Giacchino says between 2003 and 2008, SDG&E substantially reduced its actual expenses on power lines. But an SDG&E spokesperson contested that assessment, saying spending on maintenance actually increased during the years leading up to the fires.

Mitch Wagner, a lawyer for homeowners suing SDG&E, says regulators would set a bad precedent if they approve the company’s request to bill customers for their 2007 uninsured wildfire costs.

“It will encourage SDG&E to just cut spending and safety and wait for another catastrophe to happen and then once again ask customers to pay," Wagner said.

SDG&E did not respond to a request for comment. SDG&E wants customers to foot the bill for nearly $500 million in uninsured costs from the 2007 wildfires. SDG&E’s parent company Sempra had earnings last year of $1.1 billion. That’s up 14 percent from 2010.

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