Associated Press

Cal Fire Concludes Link Between Edison Electric and Murietta 'Liberty Fire'

October 09, 2018 - 4:23 pm

MURRIETA (CNS) - A 300-acre wildfire that destroyed a home and prompted evacuations in Murrieta was ignited when Southern California Edison electrical gear blew up amid strong Santa Ana winds, investigators said today, while the utility pointed to bird activity as a possible culprit.

Cal Fire conducted a months-long investigation into the December 2017 "Liberty Fire," ultimately determining that the SCE equipment failure was the source of the wildland blaze. Agency investigators said electrical arcing from a power line led dry vegetation to erupt into an inferno.

The complete Cal Fire report was not published, only a summary, and SCE released a statement saying that without the full narrative, a concrete finding regarding the ignition source could not be established.

However, the investor-owned utility acknowledged that "ignition appears to have occurred when an electrical event occurred at a pole."

"The area on the pole under review appeared to contain bird nesting material not visible from the ground," the company statement says. "The cause of the electrical event, including whether and to what extent the bird nesting material may have been a factor, remains under review."

SCE emphasized that the safety of "customers, communities and employees" remains a "top priority and a core value."

"We have long taken substantial steps to reduce the risk of wildfires in our service territory and continue to look for ways to enhance our operational practices and infrastructure," according to the statement. "SCE employs design and construction standards, vegetation management practices and other operational practices to mitigate wildfire risk, and has collaborative partnerships with fire agencies to maintain fire safety."

The company welcomed recent legislation that calls for increased state oversight of infrastructure, including the grid, and vowed to continue to implement "industry-leading safety practices."

The non-injury Liberty Fire was first reported just after 1 p.m. on Dec. 7 adjacent to a dirt road paralleling Los Alamos Road, between Liberty Road and Jeanette Drive, on the eastern edge of the Murrieta city limits, bordering the unincorporated community of French Valley.

Santa Ana winds gusting over 30 mph propelled the flames eastward into a residential area, turning the spot fire into a fast-moving brusher.

A single-family residence was in the path of the blaze and was consumed before crews from Murrieta Fire & Rescue, the Riverside County Fire Department and other agencies could deploy for structure protection.

One outbuilding was also destroyed and several others damaged, along with privately owned land.

With the flames steadily spreading for several hours, mandatory evacuations were ordered along Ernest Way, Liberty, Los Alamos, Madelda Lane, Mary Place, Mesa Avenue, Skipper Road and Via Mira Mosa.

By nightfall, more than 300 firefighters were working to establish a line around the blaze. Evacuation orders were lifted by the following morning.

The Liberty Fire was fully contained three days later, even as the Santa Ana wind event continued.