SoCal Edison to Pay $360 Million for Deadly Wildfires, Mudslide

Firefighters successfully rescued a 14-year-old girl (right) after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home in Montecito. (Photo courtesy Santa Barbara Fire Department)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Southern California’s biggest utility struck a tentative $360 million deal Wednesday to settle multiple lawsuits over three massive wildfires set off by downed power lines and a deadly mudslide that ripped through one of the burn scars.

Southern California Edison’s payout to 23 public entities settles legal actions stemming from the 2017 Thomas Fire, the 2018 Montecito mudslide that followed and the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

Wednesday’s announcement does not settle the numerous ongoing civil lawsuits filed by individuals which are being coordinated in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The Thomas Fire burned nearly 282,000 acres across multiple counties in late 2017, killing two people, destroying 1,060 structures and forcing more than 200,000 residents to flee their homes. In early January 2018, heavy rains over the burn scar caused a deadly debris flow in the Montecito community that killed 21 people.

Meanwhile, SCE’s equipment started the deadly Woolsey Fire in November 2018 according to a preliminary fire report. That blaze swept through 98,000 acres of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying 1,500 buildings and damaging more than 340 others. The blaze also killed three people.

The cities of Malibu and Calabasas sued the utility, as did Los Angeles and Ventura counties and other entities in the path of the wildfire that burned up to the Pacific Coast. On Wednesday, SCE agreed to settle the lawsuits with $210 million allocated for the Woolsey Fire and the remaining $150 million going to the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslide.

In a statement, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district includes most of the Woolsey fire burn area, said, “While this settlement won’t bring back people’s homes or businesses, it’s very important to hold SCE accountable for the devastation caused by this fire.”

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)

In October 2018, SCE acknowledged its equipment helped spark the Thomas Fire that led to the mudslides after a Los Angeles County judge advanced a massive collection of property damage lawsuits. But SCE sued Santa Barbara city and county, claiming municipal agencies did not take the appropriate measures to curb the deadly mudslides, arguing there have been multiple mudslides over the region’s history.

According to the utility company, Wednesday’s settlement has no effect on its cross-complaint against Santa Barbara – nor is the agreement an admission of wrongdoing or liability.

In a statement, Pedro Pizarro, president of SCE’s parent company said, “We look forward to engaging with other parties who have a similar interest in good faith settlement efforts. We also will continue to make substantial investments in our system and enhance our operational practices to reduce the risk of wildfires in our service area and safely provide power to homes and businesses.”

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