California Utility Says Its Equipment Helped Start Wildfire

Flames from the Thomas fire burn above a truck on Highway 101 north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Utility giant Southern California Edison said on Tuesday it believes its electrical equipment sparked one of California’s largest wildfires that burned across multiple counties last year and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes.

Many questions remain about the Thomas Fire which burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed about 1,300 structures in late 2017, but in a press release issued Tuesday, Southern California Edison (SCE) provided an update that said responsibility likely rests on its shoulders.

“Witnesses have reported that a fire ignited along Koenigstein Road near an SCE power pole, and SCE believes that its equipment was associated with this ignition,” the utility company said.

Some 200,000 residents fled their homes as flames spread in late 2017. Southern California Edison faces hundreds of lawsuits from property owners who claim faulty electrical equipment sparked the fire that burned through Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Edison’s update on Tuesday was reported after months of speculation on the origin of the fire. Investigators say there were two ignition points that started the Thomas Fire, including one in Santa Paula – about 65 miles west of Los Angeles – and Edison believes its electrical equipment was associated with the fire in that area.

The second ignition point remains under investigation by state investigators. Edison said the California Department of Forestry Fire Protection removed equipment from the area of two ignition points and the utility company has not been able to inspect their poles.

Cal Fire and the Ventura County Fire Department are conducting a joint investigation into the fire along with the Public Utilities Commission’s Safety & Enforcement Division. SCE said they are conducting their own investigation but said they would comply with the other agencies.

Earlier this month, a judge advanced a court proceeding that said the utility company could not duck California’s strict inverse condemnation law. The law leaves utilities liable for damage caused by faulty equipment, even when the companies were shown to have followed all the necessary safety precautions.

Edison says because it is a privately owned corporation, it cannot legally spread the costs of damages among its ratepayers since the state’s Public Utilities Commission does not consider losses from inverse condemnation suits a valid reason to hike rates.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to help utility companies offset their liabilities by passing on some of the damages to ratepayers. The law takes effect in 2019, however, and is not retroactive.

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