One of California’s largest power utilities, a major telecom corporation and a vegetation management company have paid millions to settle claims related to a major wildfire in Santa Barbara County.
Southern California Edison, Frontier Communications and Utility Tree Service paid a combined $22 million to resolve claims on behalf of the United States Forest Service for each company’s role in causing the Rey Fire in August 2016.
The Rey Fire broke out in the Los Padres National Forest on Aug. 18, 2016, when a tree fell onto power lines and communication lines owned by Frontier and Edison.
In 2019, the United States filed a lawsuit against the two companies, as well as the company contracted to manage vegetation near the utility equipment, in hopes of recouping some of the costs related to the destructive wildfire.
The United States Department of Justice alleged that the tree falling onto the lines caused a malfunction and led to an energized line falling to the ground and sparking a fire in dry brush.
The Rey Fire burned for nearly a month in Santa Barbara County, scorching 32,000 acres, including 19,000 acres in the National Forest system.
“This settlement will compensate the public for the expense of fighting the Rey Fire and restoring these federal lands that are enjoyed by all Americans,” said Joseph T. McNally, a federal prosecutor for the DOJ. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to aggressively pursue recovery against those who cause damages to our precious national resources.”
As part of the settlement, none of the involved companies admitted to any fault in causing the blaze.
The Rey Fire caused hundreds of people to be displaced, as well as two non-fatal injuries.
2016 was one of the worst fire seasons in California’s history, and was part of a half-decade-long period of record-breaking wildfires that intensified in severity for several years. Eight of the ten largest wildfires in California history have happened in the last seven years, with many linked to power utilities.