Southern California county files lawsuits alleging power company’s equipment sparked wildfires

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By AP News

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California county has filed lawsuits alleging a major power company’s negligence caused two wildfires that collectively burned thousands of acres and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Orange County, which is home to more than 3 million people between Los Angeles and San Diego, filed a pair of lawsuits against Southern California Edison in which it alleges the company’s equipment played a role in wildfires in 2020 and 2022.

The county said in the lawsuit that it believes that the Coastal Fire — which burned 200 acres (80 hectares), destroyed 20 homes and prompted more than 900 people to evacuate in May 2022 — was caused by an electrical failure on a utility pole that supported a distribution line. The county alleged the incident occurred because Southern California Edison, known as SCE, failed to maintain its facilities in a safe manner in an area of significant risk of wildfire.

“We demand that the utilities responsible for the destruction of county assets, increased expenses, reduced revenues, and environmental damages, reimburse the County,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said in a statement.

In a separate lawsuit, the county said the Silverado Fire, which charred more than 12,000 acres (4,850 hectares) in October 2020, may have been sparked when a telecommunications wire had contact with an electric conductor. The county also named T-Mobile in the suit over the Silverado Fire, which prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and caused school closures.

Gabriela Ornelas, a spokesperson for Southern California Edison, declined to comment on the lawsuits. She said the company cooperated with Orange County fire officials in their investigations.

Last year, the utility told state regulators unspecified electrical “circuit activity” happened at about the time that the Coastal Fire wildfire erupted. The company also previously reported the possible contact with the “lashing wire” in the Silverado Fire.

A message seeking comment was sent by email to T-Mobile.

The lawsuits, which were filed on Monday, were first reported late Tuesday by the Orange County Register.

Various utilities’ electrical equipment has repeatedly been linked to the ignition of disastrous California wildfires, especially during windy weather. The state Public Utilities Commission in 2021 approved a settlement placing of more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for Southern California Edison for its role in five wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric will face a trial for manslaughter over its role in the Zogg Fire in 2020, which killed four people. The company, which is the nation’s largest utility, pleaded not guilty.

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