San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has agreed to pay $6.4 million to the U.S. Forest Service to settle claims related to one of the largest wildfires in California history. The utility has already paid more than $1 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits after state investigations concluded that the company’s high-voltage power lines produced electrical arcing and ignited the 2007 Witch Creek Fire that ravaged 198,000 acres near Santa Ysabel in San Diego County, Calif.

Earlier this June, SDG&E reached a $27 million settlement with the City of San Diego in a lawsuit that sought damages for fire emergency response, loss of revenue from leases, damage to city-owned structures, and environmental damages incurred as a result of the event in 2007. Last December, the utility reached a $24.5 million settlement with San Diego County for alleged damages that included the cost of evacuation centers, damages to county-owned land and other response efforts. The settlement between SDG&E and the federal government was to cover federal fire suppression costs and natural resource damages.

"This settlement recovers one-hundred percent of the Forest Service’s economic losses sustained as a result of the Witch Creek Fire, enabling our skilled and dedicated Forest Service personnel to continue their rehabilitation efforts in the damaged areas and to speed the Forest’s recovery from the disastrous fires of 2007," United States Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura Duffy said in a statement on Monday.

On Monday, an SDG&E spokesperson said the settlement with the federal government marked the last outstanding government claim against the utility related to the fires. However, SDG&E has stressed it had admitted no liability in the new settlement, a position it has maintained from when it settled with the city and county of San Diego. The utility will likely seek to recover the $1.55 billion in claims it has paid to date from its customers, though that measure will require approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

A majority of the lawsuits filed against the utility in the aftermath of the fires have been settled, though many involving individuals remain to be settled.

The series of wildfires that devastated an area stretching from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border in October 2007 was visible from space. It killed at least nine people and injured 85 others. More than a million people were evacuated from their homes as firefighters battled the blaze over three weeks. Two of these fires, the Witch Creek fire, which began on Oct. 21, and the Guejito fire, which began 12 hours later, on Oct. 22, merged near Rancho Bernardo and destroyed more than a thousand homes and damaged hundreds of others, causing damages amounting to more than $18 million.

Though authorities conceded that several major forces contributed to fire conditions, including a drought in Southern California and hurricane-force Santa Ana winds, investigators from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) concluded in 2008 that the Witch Creek fire was started when two 69-kV power lines, swinging in the Santa Ana winds, contacted each other.

“I believe hot particles were created when the lines faulted and landed in the light grassy fuels in the specific origin area,” wrote an investigator, who also noted that the line had faulted four times on the day the fire began. Cal Fire’s investigation also faulted malfunctioning power lines owned by other utilities for other fires occurring at nearly the same time, including the Cajon fire, the Rice fire, and the Guejito fire.

The predicament faced by SDG&E and other California utilities faulted for causing wildfires isn’t uncommon. Earlier this week, more than 100 property owners filed suit against Rocky Mountain Power for arcing transmission lines that petitioners say sparked a 75-square-mile blaze in Utah this June. The utility has admitted no liability, but it is offering out-of-court settlements for many homeowners.

In Texas, after trees crashed into overhead power lines and sparked one of the state’s largest fires in early September last year, several victims sued Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative for gross negligence because it didn’t remove dead trees near the utility lines.

Sources: POWERnews, SDG&E, U.S. Attorneys’ Office, Cal Fire

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)