The Ventura County Fire Department has determined that power lines were the cause of the Thomas Fire that ravaged the area in December 2017.
The fire started amid high winds that caused parallel power lines to slap into each other, creating an electrical arc that ignited flammable bits of molten aluminum on the ground. Those in turn, ignited dry vegetation, according to a report released today.
Southern California Edison owns the power lines. Being named liable for the start of the Thomas Fire, under California's laws, means the utility is responsible to pay for any damages. In this case, the cost could run into the billions.
The Thomas Fire began Dec. 4 and burned for almost 40 days. It threatened the cities of Santa Paula, Ventura, Ojai and Fillmore, as well as unincorporated areas of Ventura County, before moving into Santa Barbara.
There is a continuing investigation into whether any crimes were committed for which Edison or others could be charged. There is an enormous amount of loss of property and life in both the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mud disaster that followed. The report refers to potential violations including manslaughter, unlawfully causing a fire, negligence, setting a forest fire, and failing to maintain the power system in a safe condition. There is an investigation underway by the state Attorney General into whether criminal charges could or should be brought, according to statements made in open court.
Then there's the civil litigation side. Now that the cause has been determined by fire authorities, it moves to the courts to establish liability and the amount of damages.
About 2,000 plaintiffs have already filed lawsuits naming Edison and others over their personal injuries and property losses in the two disasters. But more could come forward now that the official cause report is out. They have between two and three years to file cases.
This could potentially run into the billions of dollars for Southern California Edison ratepayers, and if negligence is shown, under California law, the burden to pay shifts to shareholders, and it comes out of profit.
Read Sharon’s full story on LAist.com
Sharon McNary, KPCC’s infrastructure correspondent
Steve Conroy, communications director for Southern California Edison
Alex Robertson, wildfire attorney who represents hundreds of plaintiffs in the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudflow disasters