Could An Electrical Equipment Malfunction Be Behind California's Latest Blaze?

Firefighters work on a house fire during the Saddleridge Fire in the early morning hours on October 11, 2019 in Porter Ranch, California. (Image: Mario Tama, Getty)

In Northern California, utility PG&E cut power to hundreds of thousands amidst a wildfire weather threat. Southern California’s main electric utility didn’t, and now it appears its equipment could responsible for sparking last week’s Saddleridge Fire.

On Monday, Southern California Edison notified the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agency overseeing all the states’ utilities, that its equipment had an “electrical malfunction,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported the news. That incident occurred near where the fire began in the Sylmar area.

SCE told Gizmodo in an emailed statement that it notified the agency on Friday “out of an abundance of caution” that its “system was impacted near the reported time of the fire,” though the company would not comment further on the report.

“As reported, during a period of high winds and low humidity, a fire began at approximately 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 10 near Yarnell Street and Saddle Ridge Road in Sylmar which quickly spread westward in the northern part of Los Angeles,” the company told Gizmodo. “The company’s top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness, and enhanced operational practices.”

A spokesperson for the CPUC said that the report SCE submitted remains confidential at this time. However, when asked about why SCE would have potentially filed such a report, the spokesperson told Gizmodo that utilities companies must report electric incidents in the event that they result in major outages of 10 per cent or more of the service territory; there is property damage of $US50,000 ($73,811) or more; there is a fatality or injury; or there is significant media coverage of the event.

As of Tuesday, the specific cause of the fire remained unknown. But the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that officials are probing reports of a fire near a transmission tower on Saddle Ridge Rd., where the fire may have started before its rapid spread due to powerful winds.

In preparation for those high winds and to avoid downed or damaged power lines, SCE had cut off power to thousands of its customers in the area on Wednesday, the Times reported, but that power black-out did not include the area where the blaze began.

“We are aware of a story out there in the media from a witness who saw fire ... from a transmission tower,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said last week, per the Times. “We believe that witness, and someone else who said something similar.”

According to the most recent data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Saddleridge Fire had burned nearly 3,200 hectares, destroyed 17 structures, and damaged 58 others. At least one person is confirmed dead in connection with the incident, having suffered cardiac arrest before later dying at the hospital. Three firefighters, meanwhile, suffered minor injuries.

The fire was 43 per cent contained as of Tuesday, and all evacuation orders related to the fire have been lifted. The Los Angeles Fire Department said that decreased temperatures and wind speeds, as well as increased humidity, would help firefighters target remaining hot spots.

Explosive Western wildfires are becoming more common as the climate crisis worsens. California is expected to see seasonal changes that will allow for large, destructive fires to burn.

In Southern California in particular, cloud cover has also decreased likely due to climate change. That allows fuels to dry out, again worsening the risk of fires. It’s against this changing baseline that utilities will have to manage electricity in a more fire-prone landscape.

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