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Cox Equipment Played Role in Starting San Diego Wildfire: Report

The contact between a Cox Communications lashing wire and a power conductor started one of three destructive wildfires in San Diego County last October, according to a report by the Consumer Safety and Protection Division of the California Public Utilities Commission.

The division investigated the cause of the Guejito, Witch Creek and Rice fires in that area and opined that plant maintained by the area utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, was responsible for the sparks that launched two of the fires. At the time of the fires, fierce Santa Ana winds whipped lines together, or, in the case of the Rice fire, a trim limb was broken by the winds resulting in a fire spark. 

The Sept. 2 report states that in the Guejito fire, a Cox lashing wire contacted a 12-kilovolt conductor of SDG&E, starting that fire. The Guejito blaze eventually merged with the Witch Creek fire, and cumulatively burned 200,000 acres and 1,141 homes. Two people died in the fires.

Both Cox and SDG&E call the report faulty and unsupported by the facts.

In a statement, Cox said a report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection indicated that Cox's line was intact prior to the extreme winds. The winds cause SDG&E's and "ours to come into contact," according to the statement. The company added that fiber optic lines do not carry electrical current that would start a fire.

"We're confident that after a full investigation, the commission will agree that evidence does not support the staff conclusions," the Cox statement said.

The investigators believe that Cox may have violated state utility rules on overhead line construction, which mandates that plant placement be designed to provide safe, proper and adequate service. That plant must be inspected frequently, according to the state rules.

The report will draw Cox into the litigation over the fires. Hundreds of homeowners have sued SDG&E for damages related to the loss of their homes, and the telecommunications provider represents another "deep pocket."

The San Diego city attorney, Michael Aguirre, has already said he will add Cox to the lawsuit brought by the city against SDG&E to recover the costs of fighting the fires, according to statements to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The state report focused on the cause of the fires and ways to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.