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Edison transmission line under scrutiny as possible cause of deadly Saddleridge fire

 Saddleridge fire burning behind Olive View Medical Center on Friday in Sylmar.
Fire investigators comb the foothills behind Saddleridge Lane in Sylmar searching for the cause of the Saddleridge fire.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

There was growing scrutiny Tuesday of a Southern California Edison transmission line in Sylmar as investigators try to determine the cause of the deadly Saddleridge fire.

Edison’s electrical system was “impacted” around the time that investigators suspect the Saddleridge fire ignited beneath the high-voltage transmission tower, according to the utility.

The utility didn’t provide more details. But Los Angeles investigators believe the fire began below those lines.

The probe comes amid growing debate about utilities cutting power to prevent fires. Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to large swaths of Northern California last week to prevent a wind-driven fire ignited by downed power lines. Edison cut power to roughly 24,000 customers in a few selected areas, affecting far fewer people than PG&E’s outages.

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Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadliest fires, including last year’s Camp fire — which devastated the town of Paradise in Northern California and killed 85 people — and the 2017 wine country blazes.

Investigators determined last year that Edison power lines ignited the 2017 Thomas fire, a massive blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that killed two people. Officials are still trying to determine whether power lines sparked November’s Woolsey fire, which ripped through Ventura County and Malibu.

In a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission on Friday, Southern California Edison said the incident, which it did not describe, occurred around the time the fire was reported — about 9 p.m. Thursday. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Edison officials could not confirm whether power lines in the Sylmar area were energized at the time the fire broke out.

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“Out of an abundance of caution,” said SCE spokesman Paul Griffo, the utility told the PUC “that our system was impacted near the reported time of the fire.”

While acknowledging the hardships imposed on residents by the fire, Griffo said, “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.”

Griffo said he could not provide further details about the impact or what type of equipment was involved, saying the situation is in the very early stages of investigation.

The Saddleridge fire has scorched nearly 8,400 acres in the hills of the northern San Fernando Valley, destroying 17 structures and damaging 77. In its early stages, fanned by strong Santa Ana winds, the fast-moving fire raced into neighborhoods and forced thousands to flee their homes.

The blaze has resulted in three firefighter injuries and has been connected to two deaths. A man, identified by neighbors as Aiman Elsabbagh, died after suffering a heart attack while speaking to firefighters battling the inferno in his Porter Ranch neighborhood. Veteran Los Angeles Park Ranger Capt. Albert Torres also died after suffering a heart attack Friday after patrolling the parks affected by the fire.

The blaze was 45% contained as of Tuesday.

According to preliminary information from the Los Angeles Fire Department, the fire is believed to have started in a 50-foot by 70-foot area under a transmission tower near Yarnell Street and the 210 Freeway in Sylmar. Sylmar residents have told news outlets and authorities that they saw a fire burning at the base of the transmission tower near Saddle Ridge Road.

Capt. Erik Scott, an LAFD spokesman, said in a video news release that investigators still are working to determine the cause of the fire.

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“They’re looking at the burn pattern, they’re combing through the debris, they’re talking to witnesses, they’re looking at surveillance, and they’re literally hiking up that hill placing stakes in areas of interest, putting colored flags to look at where the burn pattern went, how the flames were reacting against rocks, how the bushes were burnt, and really stepping back and reenacting scene[s] where that fire went through to get exact data and detail to have a conclusive answer,” Scott said. “So it takes time, and we certainly appreciate people’s patience.”

The outages angered some customers who said that the sudden shutoffs created a whole new set of hazards by preventing people from getting news about the fires. There was also concern about those with health issues who rely on electrically powered medical equipment to stay alive.

On Monday, utility regulators ordered PG&E to take immediate corrective actions, and Gov. Gavin Newsom called on the utility to give residential customers who lost power $100 rebates.

“Failures in execution, combined with the magnitude of this … event, created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated,” Commission President Marybel Batjer said of the PG&E outages.


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