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Witnesses saw snapped, sparking power line at start of destructive L.A. wildfire

Witnesses saw snapped, sparking power line at start of destructive L.A. wildfire
Gail Thackray says she saw sparks flying off a high-voltage transmission tower in Little Tujunga Canyon, where the Creek fire first ignited. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The search for causes behind Southern California’s wildfires now includes witness reports of a snapped line on a high-voltage transmission tower in Little Tujunga Canyon, sending off sparks as it whipped high overhead.

The incident occurred at the start of the Creek fire, which burned more than 60 homes above Sylmar. That was one of five fires to besiege the Southland last week, destroying more than 1,000 structures and forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes.

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Of those fires, officials have determined a firm cause of just one. The Los Angeles Fire Department said a cooking fire in a homeless encampment sparked the Skirball fire in Bel-Air.

Southern California Edison Co. announced Tuesday that California fire officials notified the utility that its equipment was under investigation as a possible cause of some of the fires.

It will probably take months for fire officials to determine the cause of the fires.

The owner of a small ranch on Little Tujunga Canyon Road said she was awakened early Dec. 5 by a panicked call from her mother, who said sparks were coming off the steel pylon as a line came loose and “was smacking the hill.”

Looking outside, Gail Thackray said, she saw much the same scene: “There was fire concentrated over there and sparks coming off the pylon…. It spread each direction.” She raced out of their ranch with her mother and daughter, driving out through fire.

Thackray’s account, made to a Times reporter last week, corresponds with the general time and location of the reported start of the Creek fire, which to date has burned more than 15,600 acres in the San Fernando Valley and nearby foothills.

Other fires include the Thomas, which started Dec. 4 in Ventura County and now is the fifth-largest fire in modern California history at more than 237,000 acres. It has destroyed 921 structures and claimed one life, a 70-year-old woman who died in a vehicle crash along an evacuation route.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials have released no information on their investigations into the start of those fires.

The fires began amid high Santa Ana winds that fanned flames to towering heights, creating extreme fire behavior that repeatedly forced firefighters to pull back. On the night of the Creek fire, Thackray’s mother, who lived in a small house on the ranch, was awakened by the sound of tree branches slapping against her windowpanes.

The closest weather station, atop a nearby ridge, recorded wind gusts as high as 73 mph at 2:55 a.m. Dec. 5 — 1 mile per hour below the sustained wind speed for a Category 1 hurricane.

The power line Thackray identified is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. . The utility last week said it believed its equipment had been cleared of involvement in the Thomas and Creek fires. But in its Tuesday statement, the utility said it “believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities.”

A spokesman for the utility declined to comment on Thackray’s description of events. He referred questions to the state fire agency.

On Wednesday, Cal Fire investigators were present on Little Tujunga Canyon Road. They said they were in the area interviewing residents about what they saw the night of the fire and declined to comment further.

One homeowner, Maria Kirkland, said investigators asked her specifically if she had seen the tower sending out sparks.

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“To be honest, I don’t remember sparking,” Kirkland said.

The California Public Utilities Commission did not immediately respond to requests for copies of incident reports the utility would be required to file with the regulatory agency.

Thackray said the slopes of Little Tujunga Canyon surrounding them were already on fire by the time she, her mother and 12-year-old daughter fled their small ranch. There was no time to gather up her dog or open the gates for her ponies, Mr. Chips and Black Beauty. Their bodies would be found later, and her house burned to the ground, leaving little more than piles of rubble.

But one horse, Swagman, jumped the fence. There was no sign of him when Thackray returned, but her trainer later found Swagman among the rescued horses at an equine center.

Determining the cause of the fire has major financial implications.

Though the cause of October’s devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa is still under investigation, numerous residents who lost homes have sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co., alleging power lines downed by winds sparked the blaze. PG&E has suggested the fire might have been caused by third-party power lines not owned by the utility.

Downed power lines have sparked massive California wildfires in the past, and utilities from San Diego to Northern California have been on the hook for millions of dollars.

Southern California Edison ended up paying the state $37 million in fines for the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire.

PG&E has also faced blame. After Cal Fire investigators found the utility responsible for the 70,000-acre Butte fire that killed two people in 2015, the state attorney general sued the company for $87 million in related costs. That case, filed in April of this year, is ongoing.

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