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Edison Accused of Impeding Probe

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While firefighters continued to battle last year’s Calabasas fire, Southern California Edison impeded efforts by state investigators trying to determine the exact cause of the blaze, even refusing to shut off the electricity to the pole where the fire apparently began, according to an investigator’s sworn affidavit.

State fire investigator Wesley A. Alston made the statement to obtain the criminal search warrant that led to last week’s raid by 50 investigators of Edison offices, including the company’s Rosemead headquarters.

Edison spokesman Steven Conroy said he could “not speak about specifics in the affidavit filing, due to the ongoing investigation, but we do disagree with some of the allegations in the affidavit.”

Dubbed “Operation Lights Out,” the California Department of Forestry, with assistance from the California Public Utilities Commission and several local law enforcement agencies, seized thousands of documents, computer records and several tree branches after the utility allegedly refused to cooperate in the investigation of the October 1996 fire. The blaze raged for a week through the Santa Monica Mountains from Calabasas to Malibu, destroying nearly a dozen homes and buildings and injuring 11 people, including a firefighter who was critically burned. It cost state and local agencies more than $6 million to put it out.

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Alston accused Edison of engaging in “reckless conduct” for failing to keep trees and vegetation trimmed a safe distance from high-voltage power lines.

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His conclusion that eucalyptus trees touching power lines caused the Calabasas fire is identical to the theory pursued by the Forestry Department in a recent lawsuit in which it and several fire victims won a $2.2-million judgment against Edison for a 1993 fire in Riverside County. Jurors in the case found Edison negligent for failing to trim eucalyptus trees, and that the negligence caused a fire that burned over 25,000 acres and destroyed 29 homes.

The forestry agency vigorously pursues damages, and sometimes criminal charges, when it believes that fires resulted from negligence by utilities or others.

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Alston’s 22-page statement, the inch-thick pile of exhibits that accompanied it, and interviews with investigators who participated in the raid indicate that forestry officials began pursuing a criminal case several months ago after Edison allegedly refused to cooperate.

Edison has offered little comment on the cause of the fire, citing the pending investigation. A report by the Los Angeles County Fire Department did not put the onus on the utility, merely concluding that malfunctioning equipment on the power pole showered the ground with sparks and touched off the blaze. Further complicating the inquiry, a purported witness said this week that she saw the fire ignited near the power pole by sparks from a truck.

Forestry officials said Tuesday that they plan to talk to the woman, but that her account does not alter their view of how the fire started.

Ill feelings between forestry and Edison officials arose almost immediately after state investigators concluded that the fire had apparently been ignited by eucalyptus branches brushing against an Edison high-voltage power line, according to Alston’s statement.

Four days after the blaze started, Alston and two other investigators went to inspect the pole and asked an Edison power line foreman to allow one of the investigators to take photographs of the equipment on the pole from the lift on his truck. Because the lines were energized, the investigator could not get closer than 10 feet.

When Alston asked the utility to shut off the electricity, Edison official Darryl Imler “would not authorize anyone to de-energize the line to examine” the equipment for fire damage, Alston wrote. Several witnesses told Los Angeles County firefighters that they had seen fire on a pole near the guardrail of the southbound Ventura Freeway. One woman went to a fire station to report that the power pole was burning “top and bottom.”

Alston and other investigators inspected the site and sought the utility’s help with their inquiry.

Los Angeles County firefighters told Alston they had seen an Edison work crew removing equipment from the pole where the fire began, as well as tree branches and other foliage.

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But when the investigators went to Edison’s Rosemead offices, according to Alston’s statement, the company “would not allow [them] to enter its buildings.” Instead, Edison said the investigators could use the lawn in front of company headquarters to examine the tree branches that had been removed.

Alston said he “examined, photographed and placed evidence tags on the three [pieces of equipment] and two branches.” But Imler, the Edison claims official, would not allow Alston to remove the items, even after the investigator told him the matter may involve criminal charges.

“When [Alston] requested to examine and measure the other branches that had been removed by Edison personnel, he was told that they were in [Edison’s] yard and that [he] could not examine them,” according to the statement.

Two written requests went unanswered, according to forestry officials.

Edison officials last week said investigators had gone to unnecessary extremes, with one official accusing them of using “intimidation tactics.”

In October 1993, Alston wrote in the affidavit, a vegetation fire in Riverside County was caused by the “improper clearance” of trees surrounding an Edison power line.

Last summer, a jury awarded damages against Edison of $2.2 million for its failure to clear trees near the power line. The case is not final, however, as Edison has filed motions seeking to set aside the verdict, and plaintiffs, including the Forestry Department, have requested a higher damage award. Separately, Edison has agreed to pay settlements to some homeowners and others damaged by the fire.

Edison spokesman Conroy said the settlements were reached without admitting liability, and “we do not accept liability for that fire.”

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According to his affidavit, Alston returned to the site of ignition of the Calabasas fire several times to see whether Edison crews had done any more trimming. But they had not, he wrote, and “the area surrounding the origin of this fire remains in violation of the clearance requirements” of state law.

Edison, Alston alleged, engages in a practice called “ ‘hot spot pruning’ "--responding to a problem area and pruning only problem branches--"without returning to the location to ensure that the entire area is in compliance” with state law.

As a result, Alston wrote, there was reason to believe Edison had violated an arson section of the state Penal Code that carries a penalty of up to six years in prison and a $50,000 fine for recklessly causing a fire that results in great bodily injury.

Conroy said Edison takes tree-trimming seriously, and spent $15 million last year pruning 400,000 trees near its power lines.


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