San Diego Utility Suing Burned Out Homeowners

San Diego Gas and Electric is going after homeowners that may have disregarded defensible space standards during the 2007 fire season. The complaints were filed in response to class action lawsuits filed against them.

According to San Diego Online SDG&E has filed cross complaints against homeowners, local municipalities and even fire agencies in response to the lawsuits.

The utility is being blamed for starting the Witch and Rice Fires due to arcing wires. The utility argues the fires were spread in part by homeowners that were not in compliance with defensible space ordinances.

County and State ordinances define how property is to be cleared. Properly brushed and trimmed property is less likely to present a problem for adjacent properties. The utility will likely argue inadequate clearing by property owners added to the devastation. Embers from burning homes added more fuel to the fires and caused more collateral damage than would vegetation alone.

Technically they are correct and ultimately this could be a mitigating factor in a settlement negotiation.

How SDG&E could go after firefighters is a mystery to me and more than a stretch. Actions by firefighters in a fast running fire are not predictable or measurable and nearly impossible to duplicate. Conditions cannot be simulated.

Fire ground triage during a fast moving fire dictates which properties will be defended or not. A property out of compliance, shrouded in overgrown brush or trees will often be overlooked in favor of those more easily defended.

These decisions are always made with firefighter safety as the overriding factor.

As simple defense for homeowners is to pull up an overhead image from Google Earth taken pre-fire. The property was either in compliance or it wasn’t.

I applaud San Diego Gas and Electric for drawing non-compliant homeowners into the fray. It shines light on the defensible space issue.
I hope the insurance industry is watching. Had they been inspecting their insured properties and forcing homeowners to comply with fire codes fewer homes would have burned.

As well firefighters would not have to make as many difficult save or burn decisions or God forbid suffer injury or death defending an un-defensible dwelling.


  • Compaq Laptop Parts says:

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  • Mike says:

    Existing fire ordinances are in place to govern everyone including the uninsured.Only a fool or certified risk taker would not insure their property in rural California.If homeowners built without permits they are SOL in my view in any case for more than one reason.It really is a simple proposition, property owners must maintain a defensible space. If for no other reason firefighter safety.Homeowners out of compliance must pay the consequences if fire enters their space. As for who does the inspections maybe an extension of the Santa Clara model that you describe would work.My idea of putting the insurance companies in charge of policing their clients is a private industry solution that does not cost the state a penny.Considering this affects the insurance co. bottom line I suspect they would be more inclined to force the issue.Mortgage holders would have to clean up the hacienda or your insurance is cut.also they would be more inclined to follow up. State inspectors get sidetracked and the workload would be overwhelming.You ask; “Who would do the inspecting for the insurance companies? Perhaps off-duty, retired or laid-off fire fighters. Not all bad, huh?”Absolutely. I have had this idea in mind for years now but can’t get the right ear at the right insurance company.I already have a business plan in mind.

  • gelvey says:

    Mike, we are assuming that the homeowners carry insurance. The Summit fire last year showed how incorrect that assumption can be.A relatively large number of the homes that were destroyed did not have insurance nor did they have any describable location since they were built without permits.In addition, volunteers are not paid with the exception allowed for vehicle expense when requested. They,therefore would not be a large cost to the State.I also believe that giving insurance companies the rule of law to demand compliance should not be allowed. And, of course, if they, the insurance companies, could not cite Cal Fire would still have to issue citations.I know also that the insurance companies could refuse to insure a structure was not compliant but this would only lead to more law suits and/or arbitrations over who was right; the insurance company or the homeowner.One other point. Who would do the inspecting for the insurance companies? Perhaps off-duty, retired or laid-off fire fighters. Not all bad, huh?

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for the comment Gelvey. My suggestion is put the inspection onus on the insurance companies.They should inspect homes before insuring them and visually inspect the insured homes annually. State Farm and Farmers etc. lose millions a year paying claims to rural homeowners that failed to adequately clear their properties.I agree with the Santa Clara program but with State budgets under siege it doesn’t seem likely the program can be sustained.If you think about it the volunteers are doing the work of insurance companies.

  • gelvey says:

    I suspect that SDG&E will bring suit against the various fire agencies on a theory that they did not inspect/cite homeowners for violating the defensible space laws.This would make perfect sense to the plantiff but,I fear, might be expensive for the defense. Perhaps training volunteers to inspect AND cite homeowners for violations would help take the load off fulltime firefighters.Using volunteers would also allow the various inspection programs to be expanded in time to year-round operations. Many more homes would, potentionally, be brought into compliance and larger areas could be inspected in this manner.A good model that could be expanded upon is currently operational in the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit. Their Volunteers In Fire Prevention perform a large number of property inspections annually. Expanding this program to allow them to cite, as well, would allow many more warnings issued to non-compliant property owners.This, in turn, might provide a better legal defense in the event of a law suit from a public utility.