Power company to pay $360 million to settle wildfire lawsuits

The settlement addresses costs after three fires in southern California started by electrical equipment burned 378,000 acres in 2017 and 2018 destroying over 2,600 structures

3-d map Thomas Fire december 17 2017
3-D map of the Thomas Fire, looking north. The red line was the perimeter at 12:30 a.m. PST December 17, 2017. Click to enlarge.

Southern California Edison has reached an agreement to settle lawsuits with 23 public entities for taxpayer losses caused by wildfires attributed to the power company’s equipment. The settlement is related to damage and expenses incurred during and after three fires in 2017 and 2018, the Thomas Fire, Woolsey Fire, as well as the Koenigstein Fire which burned into the Thomas Fire. The agreement also addresses the debris flows that killed 20 people in Montecito when rains washed mud off the barren slopes of the Thomas Fire.

The $360 million settlement is for public entities only and does not affect the claims of residents, individuals, or businesses affected by the fires and debris flows.

“While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” said John Fiske an attorney who represented local governments. “A lot of these communities … were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost.”

In December, 2017 the Thomas Fire burned over 281,000 acres and 1,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in Southern California. The Woolsey Fire destroyed over 1,600 structures and burned nearly 97,000 acres north of Malibu, California in November, 2018.

The public entities involved in the agreement include Los Angeles County, Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Consolidated Fire Protection District of Los Angeles, Ventura County, Ventura County Watershed Protection, Ventura County Fire Protection District, City of Malibu, City of Agoura Hills, City of Calabasas, City of Hidden Hills, City of Thousand Oaks, City of Westlake Village, Conejo Recreation and Park District, Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Santa Barbara County Fire Protection District, City of Santa Barbara, City of San Buenaventura, Montecito Water District, Montecito Fire Protection District, and Carpinteria Summerland Fire Protection District.

Lawsuit filed against Southern California Edison for allegedly causing the Rey Fire

The fire burned over 32,000 acres north of Santa Barbara in 2016

Map Rey Fire August 25 2016
Map of the Rey Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 10 p.m. PDT Aug. 25, 2016. The white line was the perimeter at 10 p.m. PDT Aug. 23.

The federal government has filed a lawsuit against Southern California Edison and two other companies for allegedly allowing the Rey Fire to ignite north of Santa Barbara, California on August 18, 2016. The complaint that was filed in U.S. District Court August 17, 2019 contends that of the 32,606 acres that burned in the fire, 19,752 acres were within the Los Padres National Forest. Also named in the lawsuit were Frontier Communications (a telecommunications company) and Utility Tree Service (a tree trimming company).

The fire started when a tree fell on power and communications lines. The court document states, “SCE and UTS were informed of the potential danger the tree that fell on the subject lines posed, were aware of the danger that said tree might fall on the subject lines before it fell, and failed to take any action to prevent it from falling on the subject lines.”

The filing says Frontier failed to, “…maintain proper vegetation clearance around and below its communication lines, and using a device, including its communication lines and equipment, which may cause a fire and failure to take reasonable precautions to avoid starting and spreading a fire.”

The Government alleges SCE violated the terms of its Special Use Permit for the powerlines by “…failure to prevent damage to the land and property of the United States; to take reasonable precautions to prevent and suppress fires; to construct, maintain and operate its equipment and power lines in a safe and effective working order; and to properly and safely maintain, operate, use and occupy the premises of National Forest System lands.”

On the date the suit was filed, SCE had not paid any of the suppression or rehabilitation costs which amounted to more than $26 million.

In addition to those costs, the Government hopes to recover costs of “wrongful injury to [National Forest] trees, loss of timber and vegetation, loss of habitat and environmental damages, damage to the soil, loss of use, scenic views, and aesthetic values”, in an amount to be determined at a trial by jury.

Rey Fire.
Rey Fire, August 21, 2016. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.