Southern California Edison settles for $80 million in 2017 Thomas fire case

March 8, 2024

Details of the settlement

Southern California Edison has agreed to an $80 million settlement for the damages and costs stemming from the 2017 Thomas fire.

This massive blaze, which occurred in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, led to the deaths of two people.

It also triggered a subsequent mudflow that claimed 23 lives.

The Thomas fire, starting on December 4, 2017, became one of California’s largest wildfires, burning over 280,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 structures.

Officials determined that high winds causing two of the company’s power lines to come into contact ignited the fire.

In a recent settlement finalized on a Friday afternoon, the utility company has agreed to pay the federal government to resolve claims.

This settlement, announced by the Justice Department on Monday, was made without Southern California Edison admitting to any wrongdoing or fault.

The Justice Department described this settlement as “the largest wildfire cost recovery in the Central District of California.”

First Assistant US Attorney Joseph T. McNally commented on the significance of this settlement: “This record settlement provides significant compensation to taxpayers for the extensive costs of fighting the Thomas fire and for the widespread damage to public lands.”

Edison’s response and lawsuit details

Gabriela Ornelas, a spokesperson for Edison, referred to the settlement as “a reasonable resolution.”

She emphasized the company’s ongoing efforts to mitigate wildfire risks, stating: “We continue to protect our communities from the risk of wildfire with grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices.”

The origins of the Thomas fire, as reported by fire officials, were traced to two locations in Ventura County on the evening of December 4, 2017.

The two fires eventually merged into the singular Thomas fire.

In 2020, the federal government, representing the Forest Service, filed a lawsuit against Edison.

The goal was to recover the costs of fighting the fire and the damage to the Los Padres National Forest.

The lawsuit alleged that Edison’s power lines and equipment were responsible for both ignitions in Anlauf Canyon and Koenigstein Road.

Edison had previously conceded that its equipment likely started the fire in Santa Paula, but disputed responsibility for the larger blaze in Anlauf Canyon.

Context of utility-sparked wildfires

Wildfires caused by utility equipment have led to significant destruction in California in recent years.

The Camp fire of 2018, which officials attributed to a failed Pacific Gas & Electric transmission line, became the state’s deadliest wildfire.

It devastated the town of Paradise and resulted in 85 deaths. Edison has faced multiple financial repercussions due to wildfires.

In 2021, the company agreed to pay $550 million in fines to the California Public Utilities Commission for its role in five wildfires, including the Thomas fire.

The Safety and Enforcement Division of the commission found that Edison violated state safety regulations, leading to the ignition of these fires.

FSJA Comment

The $80 million settlement agreement between Southern California Edison and the federal government marks a notable chapter in the ongoing issue of utility-sparked wildfires in California.

As California continues to grapple with the increasing threat of wildfires, this settlement may serve as a precedent for future cases involving utility companies and wildfire damages.

The agreement also reflects the growing awareness of the substantial costs and damages associated with such disasters, emphasizing the importance of preventive measures and accountability.

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