Fire marshal releases Wood Hollow findings

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 10:49 p.m. MDT

The point of origin for the Wood Hollow Fire near Rocky Mountain Power poles Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

Sam Penrod, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Fire investigators released an initial report Tuesday on the possible cause of a wildfire that left one man dead in Sanpete County.

The Wood Hollow Fire burned 47,400 acres and destroyed 160 structures, including 52 homes.

Investigators say wind likely caused a power line to come too close to the top of another power pole, sparking a grass fire at its base. The electrical ground wires had been removed by copper thieves, which eliminated the system's ability to properly dissipate the electrical current, according to Deputy State Fire Marshal Troy Mills.

"It is the opinion of this investigator that this fire is the result of the lower west 345-kilovolt conductor coming into close proximity to the top of the east pole of the 138-kilovolt structure below," Mills wrote in his report.

Indianola residents whose property was destroyed in the Wood Hollow Fire met Monday with a California attorney to discuss possible legal action against Rocky Mountain Power.

Attorney Robert Jackson, a former judge, was the liaison counsel for the Rice Canyon fire of 2007 that destroyed 206 homes. He said the legal team he was part of was able to recover $1.8 billion from San Diego Gas and Electric Company, whose downed power lines ignited the California fire.

Jackson said he and Salt Lake attorney Stephen Hill were assembling top forensic experts from around the country to determine if his firm, and the homeowners who would sign on with him, had a viable chance of recovering money from Rocky Mountain Power. 

“That’s a big ‘if,’” he said. “But if there was negligence, there’s a good chance for a recovery.”

At the time the fire was reported on June 23, there were strong gusty winds out of the southwest, fire officials said.

"As observed on the afternoon of June 25, the winds caused the conductors of the 345-kilovolt transmission line to bounce up and down," he wrote. "The lower west conductor of the 345-kilovolt conductor could have easily come within the distance needed to create an arc between the 345-kilovolt conductor and the top of the pole."

Because copper thieves had removed the ground wires, the current was able to travel through the structure's guy wires — tensioned cables that add stability to structures — and arc across the small gap of the insulators to continue to ground, Mills wrote.

"The grass around the anchors of the guy wires ignited," the report states. "The wind caused the fire to spread to other grass and sage brush in the area."

Rocky Mountain Power also released a statement Tuesday, saying the investigation is continuing and that the company will continue to cooperate with fire investigators.

"We expect the investigation may take at least several more weeks," according to the statement. "We previously indicated that while missing ground wire could be a possible contributing factor, it was early in the investigation and no conclusion had been reached. We are exploring many possible explanations for this fire."

Company spokeswoman Maria O'Mara said no further comment would be made until a final report is issued.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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