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State Regulators Say Utility's Violations Led to Deadly Oct. Fires

State regulators on Tuesday blamed two companies for violating power line regulations and causing three of the deadly fires that swept through San Diego County last fall.

State regulators on Tuesday blamed two companies for violating power line regulations and causing three of the deadly fires that swept through San Diego County last fall.

The California Public Utilities Commission released a report covering details behind the causes of the October fires, which scorched 197,000 acres, destroyed 1,141 homes, killed two people and injured more than 40 firefighters.

Regulators blamed Cox Communications for starting one of the fires by allowing a lashing wire to touch a power line owned by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. The contact, which occurred during strong Santa Ana winds, ignited the Guejito Fire.     

The Witch Creek Fire was caused when two SDG&E power lines touched in the wind, and the Rice Fire started when a tree limb fell onto a SDG&E power line, according to the report.     

The commission said the fires were started because both companies violated state regulations regarding the maintenance of power lines.The commission also said SDG&E failed to cooperate with investigators who were sent to probe the wildfires, which hindered the release of a more timely report.     
The San Diego utility said regulators lack the evidence to support their claims. The utility also denied blocking access to its staff, saying employees were busy making repairs and re-establishing power when regulators first requested interviews.
     
The state report "is full of speculation and faulty conclusions, with sparse evidence if any to support its claims," the utility said in a statement.     

The 32-page report follows another state report - issued by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in July - that also blamed SDG&E and Cox Communications for the wildfires.     

Cox officials said their fiber optic cables do not carry electrical current that would start a fire, and were intact prior to the extreme Santa Ana winds.     

"Cox has cooperated fully with all agencies during this process," Cox said in a statement. "Staff statements in the report are inconsistent with the facts."     

San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre said he plans to add Cox Communications to the city's lawsuit to recover $40 million in firefighting costs and damage to city property from SDG&E.     

At a news conference Tuesday outside Sempra Energy, SDG&E's parent company, Aguirre said the report proves the wildfires wouldn't have happened if the utilities had maintained their equipment.     

"We can't do anything about the loss of lives. We can't do anything about the loss of property now except try to get compensation, but what we can do is take action to make sure this doesn't happen again," Aguirre said.     

The utility is also fighting lawsuits from more than 300 fire victims.

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