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After the Thomas Fire, a fight over the repair of power lines

Some of the many utility poles and power lines that burned in the Thomas Fire. These poles were awaiting repairs on Dec. 6, 2017 on Highway 150 north of Santa Paula.
Some of the many utility poles and power lines that burned in the Thomas Fire. These poles were awaiting repairs on Dec. 6, 2017 on Highway 150 north of Santa Paula.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Attorneys representing victims of the Thomas Fire have filed a temporary restraining order asking a judge to stop the utility company, Southern California Edison, from removing power lines that, attorneys say, could be potential evidence in determining the cause and origin of the fire. 

A Santa Barbara County judge will hold a hearing Tuesday to make a decision about the request.

More than two months after the Thomas Fire tore through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, burning  281,893 acres and destroying 1,000 structures, investigators still haven’t determined a cause. In the weeks after the fire, residents filed a number of lawsuits putting the blame on local utility companies and seeking the cost to repair their properties.

Attorneys believe, in removing damaged lines, SoCal Edison is compromising the investigation. 

"All we wanted to do with the restraining order is just ask the court to preserve the status quo until we can work out some sort of protocol with Edison to allow, not only our fire investigators, but all of the other parties who are interested in having access to the same evidence," said Alex Robertson, one of the attorneys representing approximately 100 plaintiffs whose homes burned or were destroyed by the Montecito Mudslide.

In a statement, Southern California Edison, said it "believes the granting of the requested temporary restraining order would harm the public interest by further delaying the restoration of power to customers in the Anlauf Canyon area who have been without utility service since December 4, 2017,  as well as leaving in place fire-damaged poles that pose a safety risk to the community."

The company also said that all poles are photographed and tagged and stored in a "secure, weather-protected evidence preservation facility," which interested parties will have the opportunity to inspect. 

Robertson said once power poles and lines are moved, it's a lot harder to determine whether they played a role in the wildfire. "We then have to put all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle back together again, so it’s a lot different than seeing it in place and looking up and saying, ‘Oh there’s a charred power line.’ " 

California regulators recently approved strict new regulations requiring large utility companies to do more to prevent power lines from starting fires. 

Ventura County Fire officials say it's taking longer than usual to determine the cause because of the number of counties and agencies involved in the investigation. More than $1.8 billion in insurance claims have been filed.