Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Southern California Edison officials on Monday filed a little-noticed alert with state regulators saying their equipment may have played a role in the early morning fire that eventually sent 90,000 Orange County residents fleeing from the flames of what is now called The Silverado Fire, named for the local canyons where it started.

At about 10:30 a.m., one of Southern California’s senior managers, Paul Pimentel, filed an Electric Safety Incident Report regarding the Silverado Fire with regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.

In the alert, which was disclosed on the company’s Investor Relations page, Pimentel wrote that his report “may involve an event that meets the subject of significant public attention or media coverage reporting requirement.”

Oddly enough, nothing was said about Pimentel’s warning in any of the emergency press conferences held by the City of Irvine or the Orange County Fire Authority on Monday afternoon, well after his report was filed with state regulators.

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In his report, Pimentel noted that “preliminary information reflects SCE overhead electrical facilities are located in the origin area of the Silverado Fire.”

The incident location, according to his report, was Santiago Canyon Road.

Pimentel advised that “We have no indication of any circuit activity prior to the report time of the fire, nor downed overhead primary conductors in the origin area.”

“However,” Pimentel added, “it appears that a lashing wire that was attached to an underbuilt telecommunication line may have contact SCE’s overhead primary conductor which may have resulted in the ignition of the fire.

The investigation is ongoing.”

After filing our daily stories on the fire, our newsroom was alerted late Monday night about the SCE filing by our good friends at the Reddit subgroup for Orange County. We also noticed the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matthias Gafni filed a brief, late night story about the incident report.

Once I read the notice, I immediately called the number listed on the incident notice for Pimentel.

Despite the late hour, he answered.

I quickly identified myself as a reporter seeking comment on his report.

Pimentel refused any comment.

“I’m going to refer any questions to our corporate communications group,” Pimentel said.

I left messages via several outlets for the SCE corporate communications folks but had not heard back as of publication deadline.

On Tuesday morning, SCE Spokesman Chris Abel reached out, saying “SCE understands this is a difficult time for the many people who are being impacted by the Silverado Fire. Our 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.

Yesterday we submitted an initial electric safety incident report to the California Public Utilities Commission.

At this time, here’s what we can share:

SCE is required to submit a report to the CPUC on certain types of incidents, including incidents receiving significant media attention (like a wildfire) which may involve utility facilities.

The submission of this report to the CPUC is intended to put the CPUC on notice of an incident so that it can conduct its own investigation

The report noted that preliminary information indicates that the Silverado Fire started at approximately 6:45 a.m. on 10/26/2020. We reported the incident despite seeing no activity on the nearby 12-kV circuit nor any downed power lines because it appears that a lashing wire attached to a telecommunications line may have contacted SCE’s power line above it, possibly starting the fire.

The cause of the fire, located in a High Fire Risk Area, will be investigated by the Orange County Fire Authority and SCE will cooperate fully with that investigation.”

Abel couldn’t say why OCFA officials didn’t mention anything about power lines during two public press conferences on Monday.

On the investor section of the SCE website, the utility regularly posts a series of updates regarding Southern California wildfires.

The introduction notes that “Edison International and Southern California Edison Company (“SCE”) post or provide direct links to certain documents and information related to Southern California wildfires which may be of interest to investors in order to publicly disseminate such information.  Edison International and SCE consider the documents and information provided on or through this page, including in the Document Library below, to be publicly available to investors for SEC Regulation FD purposes.”

The website notes that as of June 1, 2020, all wildfire-related “Electric Safety Incident Reports” are posted within a day of being sent to state regulators – a deadline that SCE easily met in this case as the utility filed it’s acknowledgment, apparently within hours.

Under the 10:30 am report filed by Pimentel, it notes that the original incident occurred at 6:45 a.m. along Santiago Canyon Road.

Pimentel has filed similar reports before regarding Southern California fires.

I noticed about a dozen such notices going back as far as 2019 advising regulators of nearby facilities during fires and potential impacts.

Many times, Pimentel’s alerts merely advise regulators that SCE equipment is nearby and investigations are underway.

It’s unclear how those investigations turned out.

Yet this week’s notice from Pimentel is the clearest of any of the near dozen alerts on wildfires I reviewed going back to 2019 – that seems to indicate SCE equipment may have played a key role in the ignition of the fire.

As Pimentel said, in his alert, an investigation is ongoing.

Many eyes will be focused on the results of those investigations when they are done.

Moving forward, it seems like taxpayers are in for more sobering discussions around balancing our need for power and the natural risks that come with it.

According to internal company documents, SCE expects to incur about $6.2 billion in losses after settlements regarding the 2017 and 2018 Southern California wildfires and mudslides. The company paid out $360 million to 23 public entities, like cities, counties and special districts.

Ratepayers will ultimately see a bill as well.

In comments filed with the governor’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery last year, the SCE noted the need to figure out a new regulatory regime for wildfire risks and costs.

“While SCE continues to believe the strict liability standard is bad public policy (potentially burdening utility customers and investors with tens of billions of dollars of wildfire costs, regardless of the utility’s conduct), the Company stresses that no matter what liability standard is applied to investor-owned utilities, reform of the regulatory compact through the establishment of a clear, durable and repeatable process for timely cost recovery, based on objective standards of prudence, is urgently needed.”

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