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California

U.S. government sues the LADWP, saying utility’s equipment caused the Creek fire

A building engulfed in flames
A building during the 2017 Creek fire.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power equipment was responsible for one of several fires that broke out in Southern California in late 2017 and destroyed dozens of homes, according to a federal lawsuit.

In the complaint, filed Tuesday against the LADWP, the federal government alleges the utility failed to clear brush beneath its equipment off Little Tujunga Canyon Road in the hills above Lake View Terrace in the Angeles National Forest before a fire began Dec. 5, 2017.

The Creek fire began about 4 a.m. and, driven by powerful Santa Ana winds, destroyed 60 homes and scorched 15,000 acres, including about 7,700 acres on federal lands. The government is seeking more than $40 million from the public utility for firefighting and forest restoration costs.

“Investigators determined that the Creek Fire ignited when DWP power equipment malfunctioned and ignited dry vegetation on the Forest floor in the area of DWP transmission tower ... known as the ‘Red Tower,’” the lawsuit says. “DWP and its employees also failed to properly clear brush in the area of the origin of the fire.”

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The utility disputed that conclusion Wednesday.

“We have painstakingly reviewed all aspects of our infrastructure and damage to it by the fire and have found no indication that our equipment caused or contributed to the ignition of the fire,” an agency statement says. “Despite the allegations in the lawsuit, we have not been provided with any information or evidence indicating that LADWP was the source of the fire.”

The Creek fire broke out during what would prove to be a game-changing fire season for California.

Two months earlier, a series of deadly wind-driven fires sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. equipment had ravaged Northern California’s wine country. The blazes destroyed thousands of homes.

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Then on Dec. 4, Southern California Edison equipment sparked the wind-driven Thomas fire in Ventura County, which killed two people and burned more than 280,000 acres.

Combined, the dual fire disasters led to calls for reform in California’s emergency operations and, more prominently, in how the state’s biggest utilities actively work to avoid sparking future fires.

In October, both Edison and PG&E opted to shut off power to thousands of customers amid the dry, windy conditions that caused their equipment to fail and spark fires in the past. Both companies were heavily criticized for the move.

But LADWP did not follow suit. The utility’s territory is mostly urban but does involve equipment in zones designated by the state as having an “elevated” or “extreme” fire risk. DWP officials say they mitigate those risks through vegetation clearance and equipment maintenance, among other efforts.

But a recent city report suggests more work needs to be done.

In an audit released by the Los Angeles city controller last month, the utility was found to have hundreds of pieces of equipment, including transformers and wood power poles, in need of replacement in fire threat zones. The utility responded that it is always looking to improve grid efficiency and safety but that there is a balance.

“We recognize that every dollar we spend comes from our customers’ pockets,” the DWP said in a statement. “They are our customer-owners, and we have a responsibility to invest the money they entrust to us responsibly.”

The Getty fire, which broke out amid the other utilities’ power shutdowns Oct. 28, is believed to have been sparked by DWP equipment when a branch was blown by winds into power lines in an elevated fire threat zone next to the 405 Freeway, officials said. Similarly, the blaze at the center of this week’s lawsuit, the Creek fire, was sparked in an extreme fire threat zone.


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