By DAN REYNOLDS, a senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
Among the wildfires to sweep through Southern California in October of 2007, the Malibu Canyon fire that burned 14 structures was by no means the largest.
Utility San Diego Gas & Electric paid more than $740 million to insurers that held policies on some of the 1,141 homes that were burned in what became known as the Rice and Witch Canyon fires that ravaged San Diego County that same month. By far, the greatest damage to property insured by the California State Association of Counties' Excess Insurance Authority fell in San Diego, which saw $9 million in insured losses of public structures.
The Witch Canyon fire alone burned more than 200,000 acres in San Diego County. In what is known in the industry as inverse condemnation, it was ruled that colliding transformers owned by the utility sparked the fires that led to the personal lines losses.
In 2009, utilities in Southern California filed rate increase petitions with the California Public Utilities Commission, saying that an "insurance crisis" sparked by the wildfire losses was driving insurance premiums to unaffordable levels. In the aftermath of the fires, insurance capacity for utilities was estimated to have shrunk by 66 percent.
And now in a similar vein, civil lawsuits and public sector filings are taking aim at some big telecommunications firms in the case of the Malibu Canyon fire, which occurred on Oct. 21, 2007.
Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and NextG Networks find themselves the target of lawsuits that allege that the communications equipment that they tacked onto rented wooden utility poles overburdened the poles, causing them to snap at wind speeds the poles should have withstood. The breaking of three wooden utility poles sparked a fire in Malibu Canyon that burned 4,000 acres.
As part of its forensics work, the state's Consumer Protection and Safety Division hired consultants Spatial Informatics Group, which estimated that wind speeds at the time the utility poles broke ranged between 23 miles per hour and 43 miles per hour, far below the range of wind speed that the poles are designed to withstand. The wooden poles had just passed a state-mandated inspection by Southern California Edison and should have been able to withstand winds above 90 miles per hour.
Complicating matters is the fact that one of the poles was determined to have been degraded by termite damage.
But what concerns business and home owners in the Southern California Edison's 50,000-square-mile service area is that there are many more than just three utility poles sporting telecommunications equipment add-ons in wind and wildfire-prone Southern California.
The legal wrangling will no doubt stretch on and on as the utilities and the telecommunications providers take turns pointing fingers at each other. But what might be far more worthy of attention and energy is the need to either get that telecommunications equipment off of those poles or use something more substantial than timber to hoist them.
According to a report in the Ventura County Star, one of the overloaded wooden poles in the Malibu Canyon fire fell with such force that a guy-wire yanked a 2,600-pound concrete anchor from the surrounding rocks.
October 31, 2011
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