The Southern California Edison utility company says its electrical equipment is at least partly to blame for starting the deadly Thomas Fire last year that engulfed hundreds of thousands of acres as it swept through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Witnesses say that the fire ignited in the vicinity of an SCE power pole near Koenigstein Road in Santa Paula, one of least two origin points for the fire that began in early December and burned for weeks, the utility company said. The Thomas Fire was directly blamed for two deaths, including San Diego County firefighter Cory Iverson.
“SCE is continuing to analyze the progression of the fire from the Koenigstein Road ignition point and the extent of damages that may be attributable to that ignition,” the company said in a statement.
The second origin point was in the Anlauf Canyon area of Ventura County, the utility says, but SCE has not determined if its equipment was involved in that ignition.
The company says it is cooperating with investigations being conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Ventura County Fire Department and the California Public Utilities Commission’s Safety & Enforcement Division.
These agencies have yet to release an official cause of the fire. The Los Angeles Times reports they hope to do so by the end of November.
The Thomas Fire had been the largest in California’s modern history until it was superseded last summer by the even larger Mendocino Complex Fire. The Thomas Fire devastated more than 280,000 acres — or more than 430 square miles — of coastal foothills and forests.
By turning the usually wooded hills of Santa Barbara county into a scortched and barren landscape susceptible to heavy rains, the fire also led to deadly mudslides that killed at least 17.
In December, a lawsuit alleging that SCE likely caused the fire was filed by some residents and business owners of Ventura.
The same suit alleged that water hydrants operated by the city of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District failed to work properly. The water utility has said its hydrants were working and that it was not liable for any losses from the fire.
Dozens more similar lawsuits have been filed, the Ventura County Star reports.
Once the Thomas fire started, it was fueled by bone-dry conditions and heavy winds that allowed it to keep burning and growing.
“Such factors can trigger wildfires for a variety of reasons and strain or damage utility facilities, no matter how well designed, constructed and maintained,” SCE said.