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SDG&E Makes Assurances Ratepayers Won’t Get Stuck With 2007 Wildfire Bills

Three firefighters brace themselves from explosive heat coming from a burning...

Photo by Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press

Above: Three firefighters brace themselves from explosive heat coming from a burning home in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego, set off by a wildfire seen here in a file photo taken Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear San Diego Gas & Electric's argument that ratepayers should cover $379 million in losses from the wildfires that devastated San Diego County in 2007.

But that still left the question: how will that money be accounted for and will ratepayers get stuck with a bill down the line?

An SDG&E official told KPBS late this week that ratepayers shouldn't worry because the utility's parent company, Sempra Energy, already wrote it off as a loss in 2017.

"The $379 million represents costs SDG&E incurred to pay damage claims and legal fees in connection with the 2007 wildfires. As a result of the (California Public Utility Commission) and court decisions SDG&E will not be permitted to recover those amounts in rates. The Company previously accounted for the loss in 2017," utility spokesperson told KPBS.

The 2007 Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice wildfires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, injured dozens of firefighters.

RELATED: Supreme Court Denies SDG&E Appeal To Have Ratepayers Pay $379M For 2007 Wildfires

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has connected these fires to SDG&E's power lines. Though, to this day the utility accepts no wrongdoing and in a statement this week said these "fires occurred due to circumstances beyond our control."

Nonetheless, SDG&E paid out around $2.4 billion to settle approximately 2,500 lawsuits from people with fire damage. Most of that was covered by the utility's liability insurance and from third parties.

Yet, $379 million in claims and legal fees remained. The utility tried to pass those costs on to ratepayers, but the CPUC and state courts rejected its case. Then, on Monday, the Supreme Court gave the final no.

While fighting the case, SDG&E adopted a strategy in 2013 of shutting off power in fire-prone areas during especially hot and dry periods. This week, the utility notified 30,000 customers that they may lose power during this week's Santa Ana condition.

Still, some critics such as San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district covers large swaths of East County, says SDG&E power outages put disadvantaged populations at risk, like those with medical devices needing electricity.

RELATED: Millions Face Power Outages Across Northern, Central California

In a statement this week, she said, "power shutoffs should only be used as a last resort because they create serious public safety risks for our seniors, those dependent on medical devices and for folks who need electricity to pump well water."

She continued, "As always, SDG&E is putting itself first and looking to cover its liability rear end. Instead of taking the easy way out and pulling the plug on vulnerable communities, SDG&E should redouble its efforts to fully harden power lines and other infrastructure.”

On Twitter, SDG&E responded to one of the supervisor's claims, saying that it had taken steps to make it's electric system more resistant to wildfires.

"Dianne, we've been hardening our system for the past 10 yrs & continue to make improvements every day. We've converted 18,000 wood poles to steel, wind-resistant poles, undergrounded 10,000 miles of power lines & sectionalized our system so we impact as few customers as possible."

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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