The city of San Francisco has paid $7 million to settle federal claims for wildfire damage to a national forest caused by negligent maintenance of power line rights of way. The 1999 Pilot fire and the 2004 Early fire burned 5,698 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, Calif. The fires resulted from trees growing too close to the high-voltage power transmission lines of Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, which is owned by San Francisco. There were two civil lawsuits filed by the federal government against the city and its utilities agency.
Legislation passed in 1913 granted the city rights of way on federal lands, including the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, for a hydroelectric system that delivers year-round, potable water and power to San Francisco and neighboring communities. Hetch Hetchy is charged with clearing the rights of way. California law requires the agency to maintain a ten-foot clearance in all directions between its power lines and vegetation.
The Pilot fire ignited on August 23, 1999, about ten miles east of Groveland. U.S. Forest Service investigators determined that the fire was sparked by an electrical discharge from a power line to a cedar tree that had grown to within a few feet of the line. On August 9, 2004, the early fire ignited about six miles northeast of the Pilot fire location. Forest Service investigators again established that the blaze was sparked by an electrical discharge from a power line to an oak tree. Some of the settlement funds will finance restoration efforts.
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