Role of Downed Power Lines in Start of Malibu Wildfire Is Being Investigated
• Condition of Southern California Edison Poles Targeted for Scrutiny
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
Although fire investigators have yet to release an official report, the first fire crews to arrive at the scene of last week’s Canyon Fire pinpointed a splintered Southern California Edison Co. wooden pole as the apparent source of the fire that threatened eastern Malibu with destruction.
If the pending official investigation confirms that, this would be the second time in 11 years that power lines in or near Malibu Canyon have failed in windstorms, both times causing calamitous fires.
The Office of the State Fire Inspector has sent investigators to Malibu to see if some of the power poles in the canyon are old and spindly, and stressed by heavy loads and winds, possibly making them susceptible to failure.
“You can see from the burn pattern, it spread from that line,” yelled a firefighter from Los Angeles County Engine 89, pointing through the wind and ash in fire-filled Malibu Canyon about two hours after the pole was snapped by estimated 100-mph wind gusts.
Twelve hours later, after the fire had moved on, the splintered poles were photographed where they fell on the roadside, just north of the old Sheriff Honor Camp turnoff above Rindge Dam. It appeared that the poles had snapped in the wind, as they did not burn in the fire.
The poles were removed the next day by Edison crews working around the clock, in terrible wind and smoke conditions, to rebuild the circuit and clear the road of two miles of tangled lines and poles. Numerous poles fell on or near the canyon road during the windstorm and resulting fire last weekend, officials said.
Calls to Southern California Edison’s news office this week were not returned. Los Angeles County fire officials said their investigation was continuing.
Back in 1996, the Calabasas-Malibu fire was sparked by a power line dropping from SCE poles south of U.S. 101, east of Malibu Canyon-Las Virgenes Road, and about six miles north of last week’s failure. The ’96 fire injured 11 people, including six firefighters overrun by a sudden flashover in Corral Canyon.
Last week’s fire cost $5.8 million to extinguish, and injured three firefighters. Damage estimates are not yet tallied, but parts of Malibu were evacuated and local schools and businesses were closed for up to a week.
The state investigators are assisting LAC investigators to determine the cause of the Canyon Fire, said Cal Fire’s chief of law enforcement, Dave Hillman, from the emergency command post in Sacramento.
“Our role in the investigation is purely to investigate the cause of the fire,” he said Tuesday.
Spindly-looking power poles along Malibu Canyon Road have been a source of concern for several months for some residents, including Ed Meyer, whose house high above the canyon on Piuma Road overlooks the sinuous route below. Meyer said he has been warning Edison for several months that its older poles were falling over.
“Those lines were hanging out over the road for months,” Meyer said. “The company has replaced some of the poles with new ones, and put up a steel pole in one place, but a lot of those old poles are down there still.”
Meyer is most concerned with wooden poles that anchor a span of wires that cross the entire canyon on one reach, more than a quarter mile from Malibu Canyon Road up to the summit on Piuma. “Those poles swing like crazy in the winds.
“This whole system has been weakened for years, and I think there was so much tension on the whole thing that it snapped and pulled the whole string down,” he said this week.
City officials said they wanted to see an official report, but said power poles are probably not designed to withstand the winds of 100 mph that swept down the canyon that Sunday morning.
“Those wooden poles are 19th century technology,” said Malibu City Councilmember Ken Kearsley. “We have a choice: we can underground [the lines] at the cost of a million dollars a mile, or we can put them on steel poles.”
But Kearsley said it was important not to rush to judgment on the issue. “Those were hundred-mile-an-hour winds,” he cautioned. “To what extent of wind do you plan for?”
Meyer has more than a passing interest in the string of power poles in Malibu Canyon that for years had been tilting over at an angle: his home was nearly burned in last week’s fire.
“I lost two acres of succulents next to my house, which I foamed.” Meyer said. “You’ve gotta foam up here to save your house.”
“But this was no act of God, they have been neglecting this for years,” Meyer said.